This is one of the oddest books I have read. Some bits of the plot and the main character are a bit strange but the overall story is still extremely gripping and thought-provoking.
Interestingly the story starts with the ending. You already know WHAT has happened but then you spend the next 600 pages discovering HOW it all happened and after you finish the book, you will spend the next few days pondering WHY it all happened. I felt this was the genius of John Irving, the way the story was crafted, starting with the end and then s-l-o-w-l-y filling you in with the details.
The story is about two young boys who are best friends- John Wheelwright and Owen Meany. John is an average boy who comes from a well-to-do family but has a bland personality, is self-conscious, has some learning difficulties and most importantly lacks faith. Owen on the other hand is an exact opposite as he comes from a blue-collar background, is extremely small in size and has a curious, screechy voice but he more than makes up for it with his personality, intelligence, self-confidence and faith. Owen was small in size but had a giant presence. He believes he is an ‘instrument’ of God’s will and leads his whole life preparing to fulfil the purpose that God has assigned him. John’s faith is not strong and he is especially sceptical about miracles. John is the narrator of the story and it takes us on his journey of going from a non-believer to a Christian because of what happens in Owen’s (and John’s) life.
The story analyses faith and the role of doubt within faith. Though I am not as fanatical or religious as Owen, I too strongly believe that everything in life happens for a reason, though we might not know what that reason is right now. So, in some ways I understood Owen and his faith but I found it more difficult to digest when some bits of story went slightly supernatural.
You can also call it a coming of age story, as we hear in flashbacks how the two boys grow up together from little boys to young men. All of it set with a strong context of the Vietnam war and the American politics of that time. You can hear Irving’s disdain with conceited war-loving political machinery that destroyed a generation of American youth and left them disillusioned. The rant against the political set-up sometimes went on for pages and could feel a bit long drawn out.
What will stay with me for some time to come is the character of Owen Meany. He is such a unique character that Irving develops painstakingly in great detail. In my imagination, I have a vivid image of what he would look & sound like. I read somewhere that there is now a Hollywood movie based on this book- I am pretty sure that if I watch it, I would be disappointed as their characterisation of Owen Meany would not match with my imagination.
The book also had a great ensemble of smaller characters – Harriet Wheelwright (John’s grandmother), Dan (John’s stepfather), Hester (John’s cousin) and Father Merill. Each an important aspect of the story and each of them brilliantly brought to life by Irving.
The other bit that would stay with me are the questions that I am still thinking about- Was Owen really God’s instrument? Was his undeterred faith justified? How do we explain some of the miraculous elements of his life? I would most definitely read the book again, in the hope of finding answers to some of these questions.