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The Gravedigger’s Daughter – Joyce Carol Oates

I may have read “Blonde” but I think this is the first Oates book I have read. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I am pretty sure that most of my readership is also in my book club, and this is this month’s pick. But, for posterity’s sake:

At the beginning of Oates’s 36th novel, Rebecca Schwart is mistaken by a seemingly harmless man for another woman, Hazel Jones, on a footpath in 1959 Chatauqua Falls, N.Y. Five hundred pages later, Rebecca will find out that the man who accosted her is a serial killer, and Oates will have exercised, in a manner very difficult to forget, two of her recurring themes: the provisionality of identity and the awful suddenness of male violence. There’s plenty of backstory, told in retrospect. Rebecca’s parents escape from the Nazis with their two sons in 1936; Rebecca is born in the boat crossing over. When Rebecca is 13, her father, Jacob, a sexton in Milburn, N.Y., kills her mother, Anna, and nearly kills Rebecca, before blowing his own head off. At the time of the footpath crossing, Rebecca is just weeks away from being beaten, almost to death, by her husband, Niles Tignor (a shady traveling beer salesman). She and son Niley flee; she takes the name of the woman for whom she has been recently mistaken and becomes Hazel Jones. Niley, a nine-year-old with a musical gift, becomes Zacharias, “a name from the bible,” Rebecca tells people. Rebecca’s Hazel navigates American norms as a waitress, salesperson and finally common-law wife of the heir of the Gallagher media fortune, a man in whom she never confides her past.

I didn’t love this. I found that it was almost a difficult story to follow, because Oates’ language and writing gets in the way of her own story. I think the same themes kept getting hit on, but never really clearly enough for me to feel moved or attached.  The story is told in three (or four?) parts, and I found that I really liked the first and last – but the entire middle (and really, meat) I couldn’t find myself emotionally invested.


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