by Joyce Carol Oats
Da Capo Press
Reviewed by Jodie
I was not sure that I wanted to write this review at all. I worship Joyce Carol Oates, she is my favourite author and I would happily spend days locked in a house reading solely from a pile of her past novels. It felt unfair that her first appearance at Estella’s Revenge would be a negative one when she has provided me with so many intriguing perspectives on life. ‘Rape: A Love Story’ may not have been a book I enjoyed but ‘Broke Heart Blues’, ‘Man Crazy’, ‘Foxfire’ and ‘Blonde’ are books I could live in, books I never wanted to end. At least ‘Rape’ was short so this recent novella did not prolong my disappointment. I felt that mostly what kept me from fully engaging with the book centered around the views expressed rather than the writing or the plot and if this was true wasn’t I criticizing the book because I didn’t agree with it rather than examining the quality of the author’s craftsmanship? Perhaps I just wasn’t perceptive enough to understand the author’s intentions. I had a bit of a reviewing crisis about it, which I’ll admit is not the worst kind of crisis but it did occasionally stop me sleeping. I kept silent for a while but the book still niggled at me.
In the end I saw a blogger talking about ‘Beasts’ and in the comments someone said that their first encounter with Joyce Carol Oates’ writing had been with ‘Rape: A Love Story’ which they had also found underwhelming. Call me a coward but that little bit of verification finally allowed me to fully admit that I didn’t like the book and that I was happy to say so out loud. So I come to this review with a little cloud of guilt over my head, hope for forgiveness and vow to run around waving my copy of ‘Broke Heart Blues’ around like a preacher for the next few months.
Teena Maguire is attacked walking home from a Fourth of July party. She cuts through Rocky Point Park, which she would usually avoid after dark and drunk young men chase her and her daughter to a boatshed. Teena is beaten, raped and left for dead while her young daughter Bethie manages to escape sexual abuse by wedging herself in a corner. First to arrive from the police is John Droomer who has come to believe that the system he works within is no longer associated with justice. When Teena and Bethie are failed by the legal system and by the prejudices society holds about women making rape allegations Droomer becomes their personal avenging angel, murdering the gang of neighborhood boys attacked them.
This resolution is my main problem with the book. It avoids the easy traps that books about rape can get caught in, for example the victim woman who never recovers and the woman wholeheartedly supported by the legal system but it instead uses the equally clumsy ending of a woman whose attackers are extinguished by ‘true’ justice. Teena’s abusers are killed and once she knows that they can not reach her again she is able to readjust and form some kind of productive life for herself. This ending is as much a fantasy as novels that give all their rapist characters large prison sentences but at least the legal system’s failure and the frustration that leads to violence is closer to the truth of society. However it is an unforgivably simple solution and in this novel completely removes unempowers Teena. Her security is created by a man, brought back to kill all those involved by her young daughter. She plays little part in regaining her life and power and yet Joyce Carol Oates shows her contented at the end of the book. It is hard to disagree with the happiness that Teena finds through her attacker’s disappearances, as clearly we all want characters who are raped to be able to regain their lives but is the destruction of their rapists the best or most helpful ending we can hope for? Rape and recovery are complex issues and I’m not entirely sure how I want a book that deals with them to end or if I want it to point to resolution at all but I know that this vigilante, Bruce Willis style justice did not feel right to me.
What I have always loved about JCO writing is its fluidity, its shifting quality and its ambiguity. The reader is never sure of the truth as many different possible versions are written and then demolished, only to be alluded to again later. To use this approach would have been impossible in a book about violent rape as the author does not want to add to the social idea that much rape testimony is unreliable or suggest that people are right to be suspicious of women who report rape. However without the weaving lines of false facts and double backs her writing loses some of its rhythm and the poetic joy that comes from her instinctively brilliant stream of consciousness passages is largely missing. This type of writing only occurs at the very beginning, as Teena’s attack is related and in a short thought monologue of one of the rapists later in the book. These sections are evocative and strong, conveying succinctly ideas that she labours over in linear prose at other times in the book. She has not used a style of straight forward, simple narrative that is strong enough to deal with such a violent subject.
The story feels flat and hums along quietly, despite the provocative subject matter. Sadly this book will not be joining it’s sibling on my permanent bookshelf.