My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there was no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”
– Frederick Buechner, quoted at the beginning of A Prayer for Owen Meany
John Irving says he is not a believer. And yet, A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the most overtly Christian stories that I have read. It manages to be both realistic and miraculous, both human and divine.
Any review of this book must quote its opening line: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” It is to Irving’s great credit that he actually delivers on his first line’s promise of how epic this story will be.
Despite its slow and meandering plot, A Prayer for Owen Meany captivates. God is in the details here: the narrative soars to life with how lovingly the characters, the setting, and the scenes have been crafted. Each voice is so distinctive, each setting so intimate, each scene so particular. I could not imagine that the author did not live in these places, love these characters, and believed these beliefs. In fact, it was only late into the book, when I realised that the narrator Johnny Wheelright was not one and the same person as the author John Irving. I was so convinced that this was an autobiography.
Aunty Anula or my mum would stare me when I chuckled out loud while reading this novel. “I WONDER WHAT THE PENGUINS ARE UP TO? DO YOU THINK THEY’RE ALL LESBIANS?” How do you contain your mirth at a line like that?
Even now, I can imagine what it would be like to talk to Owen Meany. The author says this of him: “Owen’s voice is irritating, not only because of how it sounds but because of how right he is. People who are always right, and are given to reminding us of it, are irritating; prophets are irritating, and Owen Meany is decidedly a prophet.” What a character Owen is – at once both flawed and omniscient, both a sinner and a martyr. And what humility a first-person narrator must have to tell a story with another as a protagonist. What love he must have for his friend.
Therein lies the vast and layered sorrow that is never once directly spoken about but is felt so keenly through the scenes shifting between Johnny’s bitter present and his glowing past. A best friend has loved and lost, and there is an aching emptiness in its wake. “The only thing wrong with me is what’s missing. Owen Meany is missing.”
In perfect irony, this narrative closes with a miracle that flips the deus ex machina. Thus does Johnny narrate: “For although I believe I know what the real miracles are, my belief in God disturbs and unsettles me much more than not believing ever did; unbelief seems vastly harder to me now than belief does – but belief poses so many unaswerable questions!”