Wrestler, international author, and all-round great American novelist, John Irving’s novels have been translated into over 35 languages, with his work reaching all four corners of the globe.
When I think of John Irving, I think of my 21st birthday when I was gifted A Prayer for Owen Meany. I distinctly remember feeling intimidated by the rather thick novel but I was intrigued by the blurb, and armed with the glowing recommendation, I began my reading journey during the hot summer of lockdown.
I was wary of the religious themes that ran through the novel, feeling slightly disgruntled that the book’s key themes wouldn’t meet my interests. However, I was more than pleasantly surprised. A Prayer for Owen Meany made me experience every emotion possible. I fell in love with Irving’s writing and his ability to change my outlook on life. It took me only a matter of days to read and I quickly followed with The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.
What I found most endearing about A Prayer for Owen Meany was his pursuit of his purpose in life. At 11 years old, Owen hits a foul ball during a little league game, instantly killing his best friend, Johnny Wheelwright’s mother. Believing this event to be an act from God, Owen begins thinking that there must a reason for everything. Owen is a remarkable boy in many ways. Assuming himself to be God’s instrument, he sets out to fulfil the fate he has prophesised for himself. I laughed, cried -mostly cried- and marvelled at the short but mighty life of Owen Meany.
The novel centres on the complex friendship of the two boys, the extraordinary and terrifying events that follow that tragic day and is an eye-opening novel of self-exploration and faith. It’s a story I would recommend you reading at least once in your life. Both intellectually provocative and touchingly empathetic, it will stay with you long after you’ve read it.
Born in New Hampshire, John Irving has led an accomplished life. He has dual citizenship for America and Canada and possesses a lifelong love for wrestling. With his first novel being published at the age of 28, Setting Free the Bears, is the first of many acclaimed titles. Irving’s life is regularly intertwined with his fictitious worlds, his love for wrestling is a re-occurring theme and his hometown of New Hampshire is the idyllic setting in many of his novels.
After achieving critical and popular acclaim for his novel The World According to Garp in 1978, John Irving is renowned globally. Translated into more than thirty different languages, in over forty countries, with over 10 million copies sold, it is truly a revolutionary novel.
Something I admire most about Irving is his ability to write beautiful, epic descriptions alongside shorter, more chaotic passages. He uses clever, enthralling plot twists, which left me caught between laughter and utter shock upon first reading them.
Described as the voice of ‘social justice and compassion in contemporary American literature’ by The Globe and Mail, Irving masterfully intertwines his long-time commitment to themes for sexual minorities into his novels. Becoming a voice on the subject for sexual freedom, Irving captivates his readers by his storytelling. My favourite by Irving, The World According to Garp, is perhaps the novel which highlights Irving’s ability to voice social injustice most cleverly. Irving doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. He instead uses the explicit, gruesome and messy to portray real life in all its imperfections.
The novel follows T.S. Garp, the bastard son of Jenny Fields, a radical feminist leader ahead of her time. Filled with sex, lunacy and sorrow, this is the life and death of a famous mother and her almost-famous son. The book discusses a range of issues from feminism and sexuality to infidelity and death. This is why I have such a deep-rooted love for Irving’s novels; for his ability to write such interesting books and characters, while not being afraid to tackle ground-breaking issues.
Masterfully written, Garp’s life is full of contradictions and inner turmoil. Being the son of a feminist writer, Garp entered the world under questionable methods, so his life was always bound to be interesting. With humour, Irving creates intricately diverse and colourful characters, each with their own troubled life story and artfully weaves social issues into the plot.
More recently Irving has published one of his longest novels to date, The Last Chairlift. His first novel in several years, it is a ghost story, a love story and a lifetime of sexual politics. In Aspen, Colorado in 1941, Rachel Brewster, also known as Little Ray, is a slalom skier at the National Downhill and Slalom Championships. Finishing nowhere near the podium, Little Ray however manages to get pregnant.
Back home in New England, Little Ray becomes a ski instructor. Her son Adam grows up into a family that defies conventions and evades questions concerning her eventful past. Years later, Adam will go to Aspen in search of answers. In the Hotel Jerome where he was conceived, he will meet some ghosts, ghosts which will not be the last ones he will see. Like his other novels, Irving refuses to cage his characters’ identities and he draws characters with wit and empathy.
I think I will always be in awe at how Irving is able to interlink societal issues, aspects of his personal life and his creation of complex and colourful characters. After all, that is what makes John Irving’s writing so powerful, intriguing and enjoyable for me. It is safe to say that Irving will always have a place on my bookshelf.