Friday, 16 October 2009

O is for Oates

Rape: A Love Story is a deliberately provocatively titled novella by the prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates. According to wikipedia (which is always true) she has written over fifty novels, earning her Pulitzer Prize nominations. She is also a literary critic, professor, short story writer and a playwright.

The fact that she is a playwright explains why the book is written in a very specific way – half article, half perspective. It’s written in small sections called things like ‘If’ or ‘She had it coming’, similar to newspaper articles. In fact, the title of the book comes from a newspaper headline later on in the book.

The plot is tragic, shocking, and even more affecting because things like that happen every day. Teena Maguire is gang raped and beaten nearly to death while her twelve year old daughter, Bethie, huddles in a corner. The physical injuries are horrific enough, leaving Teena in a coma for weeks and Bethie with a dislocated arm, along with dozens of bruises and cuts. The worst injuries are, of course, the mental ones. Not only do the Maguires have to come to terms with the events of July 4th, but also the fact that the town of Niagara Falls turns against them. Teena Maguire allegedly was drunk, high, a known prostitute – she deserved it, she was asking for it.

As the reader, we’re obviously on the Maguires’ side. Persecuted by the family members of the accused, threatened by the accused themselves, there’s nothing they can do to protect what innocence is left. That is, until Detective Dromoor comes along. For some reason, he’s drawn to Teena and her daughter. Perhaps it’s because he was first on the crime scene, or the sniper training he had in the army made him believe that justice should be done, even if the court fails. The court fails – some hotshot lawyer persuades the judge and jury that Teena Maguire was indeed drunk, high and a prostitute. The evidence found counts for nothing as it’s her word against theirs – they have the law on their side. Again, this is a shocking turn of events, made even more unbearable by the fact that this kind of thing happens all the time.

In the face of this injustice, Dromoor takes the law into his own hands. Some of the accused go missing, get shot, change their minds.

The questions raised are interesting. Is vigilante justice right? Should we rely on the law to protect us? Can we blame Teena Maguire for taking the shortcut through the park after midnight in July, after twenty four hours of celebrations?

I can easily see this as a play – there are definite scenes, turning points, character arcs. It’s told mainly from the daughter’s point of view, in a voice which is sometimes childish and sometimes too adult, as if she’s repeating things she’s overheard. Some of the snippets are told from the future, when Bethie is married. The ordeal still touches her though, she has never told her husband. Her mother never recovers – not physically or mentally.

It’s pretty bleak, to be honest. Despite that, I still enjoyed it. It was thought provoking and it made me angry – a sure sign that a book is well-written. Oates loves language, and plays with it easily and confidently. Her sentences are written with impact in mind.

I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter or perhaps Alice Walker. It only took me a couple of hours to read, but I have a feeling it’ll stay with me for a while yet.


The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

Ilike your blog. You write very well and your reviews are most insightful. Thanks for sharing.

SMR said...

Thank you for your compliments - it's lovely to know that my little blog's being read!
If you have any suggestions for other books I can read, I'd be glad to hear them.
Have a lovely weekend, Suze x