Book review: The Round House, Louise Erdrich

LOUISE Erdrich takes us back to the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation that she has conjured and mapped in so many of her novels and made as indelibly real as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Joyce’s Dublin.

The Round House

Louise Erdrich

Corsair, £17.99

This time she focuses on one nuclear family –the 13-year-old Joe Coutts; his mother, Geraldine; and his father, Judge ­Antone Coutts — that is ­shattered and remade after a terrible event.

Although its plot suffers from a schematic quality that inhibits Erdrich’s talent for elliptical storytelling, the novel showcases her ability to delineate the ties of love, resentment, need, duty and sympathy that bind families. Her novel opens out to become a detective story and a coming-of-age story, a story about how Joe is initiated into the sadnesses and disillusionments of grown-up life and the sombre realities of his ­native American history.

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The event that changes the Coutts family’s lives is the rape and beating of Geraldine, which occurs in 1988 near the round house, a place used for sacred ceremonies. The attacker douses Geraldine with petrol and attempts to set her on fire. She is so traumatised that she withdraws to her bedroom, refusing to eat or speak. When Joe suspects that the police investigation has been less than thorough, he sets out to solve the crime himself.

While evidence piles up pointing to the identity of the man who raped Geraldine, his arrest and conviction are complicated by jurisdictional rules having to do with whether the crime took place on state or tribal land, and who had committed it. It soon becomes clear that Erdrich wants to use this story to show how a tangle of laws can hinder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations, and in an afterword she thanks experts whom she consulted on these matters.

Unfortunately, she is never able to dramatise these lessons fully or integrate them into her story. The rapist remains a cartoon villain and the events relating to his back story and the Coutts family’s efforts to bring him to justice feel tainted by contrivance and lumbering exposition. Erdrich’s 2008 novel The Plague Of Doves – which featured Joe’s father, Judge Coutts, in a supporting role – was far more nimble at welding shades of psychological grey with the primary colours of an old-fashioned fable. That novel did a more eloquent – and less didactic – job of showing how racial hatred and a history of injustice can reverberate for generations.

Much of The Round House is told from Joe’s grown-up perspective, looking back on the events of his childhood. This deprives the novel of the choral effect of so much of her earlier fiction, but it turns out to be the source of the book’s emotional power. We are made to experience, firsthand, Joe’s apprehension of the precariousness of life, and his realisation that there are limits to his father’s power to ensure the workings of justice – or even to keep his own family safe.

Although Judge Coutts had promised he wouldn’t involve his son in the case, he changes his mind. What Joe does with the knowledge he acquires from his father will help determine the course of his life, just as the respect he gains for his father’s views on the working of justice will lead him to go to law school. It is Joe’s story that lies at the heart of this book, and Joe’s story that makes this flawed but powerful novel worth reading. «