I had never read any novel by John Irving before and I don’t know how to begin this review since my perception of the novel seems so different from every other review I have read so far…

On a basic level, the story is the following: Owen Meany, from a family who is in the granite business, thinks of himself as an instrument of God. At eleven years old, he accidentally kills his best friend’s mother with a baseball. As years pass, he claims to have a prescience of his own future, because of a dream. Everything in Owen’s life has a purpose and everything falls into place in the end, where we understand how Owen’s heroic destiny seems to coincide with God’s will. The novel is full of symbolism and foreshadowing, on which I will not come back since many other reviews I have read already mention it…

Many readers claim that this novel has strengthened or given them their faith back: good for them… First of all, I cannot help but be puzzled by the fact that a fiction has the power to give faith: how can a fiction literally make believe is what I keep asking myself. I personally think of A Prayer for Owen Meany as a mockery of religion and as being very skeptical about faith (just consider that a dummy gives a pastor his faith back!). In the end, it seems that John has found faith in Owen Meany rather than faith in God, and the faith he claims to have found has not enlightened his life: he is a bitter man who lives in the past, still mourning Owen’s death. If Owen’s life is inspirational, John certainly does not benefit from this inspiration. Some readers compared A Prayer for Owen Meany to the M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Signs. And it is true, that, at first sight, the two stories share many similarities. But the main difference is that if the story of Signs is told by the objective narrator that is the eye of the camera, while the story of Owen Meany is told by a most questionable narrator and reveals a very particular relationship between the narrator and Owen…

Let me explain: I still can’t say, at the end of the book if Owen is or is not God’s instrument, but what I can tell for sure, is that John Wheelwright, the narrator, is indeed Owen’s instrument. Let’s not forget that Owen has taken all John’s major decisions for him throughout his life: he has first done his homework, then convinced him to chose an English major, he has decided that John was not to go to Vietnam, he has chosen the subject of his master’s thesis and has finally convinced him to leave the USA for Canada. Owen is the most manipulative being existing and John is completely under his spell. Owen seems to have a similar effect on many people: for instance, as the VOICE, Owen even manages to orchestrate the downfall of Gravesend Academy’s headmaster…

John claims that Owen is too literal, too orthodox, but Owen is instead a daring revisionist: not only has he given a whole new meaning to nativity, by replacing the baby Jesus by an accusing God-of-the-Old-Testament-like figure (himself), he has also managed to change Dickens’s A Christmas Carol‘s "syrupy" ending, giving it a gloomier tone and making the ghost of the future appear as the main character instead of Scrooge…

At first, it seems that Owen is a Christ-like figure, believed (at least by his parents and by himself) to be born of a virgin mother, doomed to end a martyr: like Christ, Owen is "used". But is he really used? Is he not rather a "user"? At one point, John describes Owen’s first apparition in front of his cousins: "I remembered how he had appeared to all of us: like a descending angel- a tiny but fiery god, sent to adjudicate the errors of our ways". Indeed, Owen acts like he is in control, Owen manipulates, he is judgmental, and, like God, Owen even gives free-will to his flock (by forging students cards when himself does not drink, so they can chose to drink if they wish…) In many respects, Owen resembles more God the father than Christ the sacrificed son!

Many people complained about the narrator being weak, boring, always ranting about Reagan, relentlessly. Why don’t they leave their own feelings about politics aside and simply ask themselves why the narrator is so obsessed with politics to the point of alienating everybody (including some readers)? Also, why is he still a virgin? Why is he a bachelor, an essentially lonely man, unable to live in the present? Is the man completely sane? If he is not, can we trust him? John the teacher complains that his students only pay attention to the story, can we not take this as a warning to the reader: do not pay attention only to the story, but rather, look at who is telling it? Is this narrator completely reliable? Can we take what he says at face value? I am not saying Owen Meany is intended to be a fake. The correspondence between his vision and what happens remains troubling and is intended so, I believe. Maybe Owen is indeed meant to be a miracle, maybe what we must keep in mind is a quotation by Frederick Buechner, at the beginning of the book:

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there is no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.

The question we may ask is: has John still room for doubt after experiencing Owen? If not, is there still room for him? By 1987, year from which he narrates the events, John is not much of a man, he is rather a shadow. Shaped by Owen, then abandoned by him, John was always in the shadow of Owen. A Prayer for Owen Meany is more about John Wheelwright than it is about Owen, and we are indeed left with more questions than answers when we close the book…

A Prayer for Owen Meany is a complex book, that raises many questions: I love it when literature teachers write novels, there is always so much more than first meets the eye… A Prayer for Owen Meany is a great story combined with a masterful storytelling…

I hope to read The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules very soon…

Rating: 5/5