One of my fellow book club members loaned me this book after we had read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as, based on our discussions, he could tell I enjoyed contemporary stories about everyday people and relationships. He was absolutely right, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving was a brilliant read from start to finish.
I don’t like to give spoilers in my book reviews, no matter how old the book, so note that the following is not a spoiler as it’s written on the back cover of the book. The story basically follows two boys who are best friends, Owen and John, from the 1950s through to the 1960s. During a baseball game, Owen hits the ball that strikes John’s mother on the head, and she tragically dies. The story then follows these two boys through that life-changing event to their high school and college years, and the commencement of the Vietnam war. Their religious upbringings and beliefs as they grow older feature heavily in the book, with Owen believing that he is ‘God’s Instrument’. Throughout the novel John is on the search to find out who his real father is, as it was a secret his mother took to the grave, and this is also a thread that flows through the story as the boys get older.
I am reluctant to give much more of a synopsis as I truly think people should read this and discover the rest for themselves. What I will say is, wow, what incredible characters. Owen is someone who hasn’t fully developed; his voice is unusual and as a grown man he is barely 5 feet tall. Yet he is such a huge character. The text when he speaks is all in CAPITALS (we find out more about this during the story) to accentuate his unusual voice, and everything he says seems to have meaning. The friendship between him and John is beautiful. They have their disagreements and different paths but they always come back to their bond, it is so strong. The other minor characters in the novel are also very well written. I have never read a John Irving book before but I was blown away by how real all these people were, despite the unusual situations they were often placed in.
The narrative structure is an interesting one, told from John’s point of view when he’s about twenty years older and living in Canada. While the shift in time flowed fairly well, I did find myself taken out of the story a bit as the older John complained about US politics in the 1980s. I just wanted to skip all those parts and get back to his story about Owen. I know they were there for a purpose, but they were my only gripe with an otherwise fantastic read.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – 4.5 out of 5 stars