Review: Breathe by Joyce Carol Oates

A woman overwhelmed with grief for her dead husband stands at the precipice of madness in Joyce Carol Oates’s latest. 

“Breathe” is not so much an examination of grief or a chronicle of Michaela McManus’ cycle of denial, anger, depression, and eventual acceptance. Rather, it’s a nightmarish portrait of emotional anguish: a familiar scenario, twisted and contorted into something horrific by her inability to believe something so terrible has happened.

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Review: Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. by Joyce Carol Oates

x293When John ‘Whitey’ McLaren witnesses an act of police brutality against an Indian man mistaken as black, the former mayor of a nearby town attempts to intercede. Tased to the ground, he suffers a stroke and soon dies — ‘soon’ being a relative term, because “Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” is Joyce Carol Oates at her most loquacious.

Whitey leaves behind his wife Jessalyn and their five grown-up children; white, privileged Americans who are grievously discombobulated by the abrupt disgorgement of their family’s lynchpin. But this is not the simple tale you might presume it at heart: that of a family experiencing the most primal of heartbreak and pain, and their redemptive path away from it. Instead, Oates steeps her cast in the most excruciating and toxic forms of grief, and lets the McLaren’s stew in it for the novel’s entirety, evocatively detailing its metamorphic effect, as their sadness contorts into outright despair and ferocious anger. The siblings transform; grotesquely in most cases, as if Whitey’s death has vanquished any semblance of decency. The children’s handling of their mother’s attempts to move on (and out) from Whitey’s shadow is unsettling; their focus on the estate rather than her happiness is demonstrative of their greed and selfishness, once hidden behind polished veneers, now stripped and laid bare.

“Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” is an astonishing piece of storytelling; a domestic masterpiece textured by Oates’ willingness to probe the forbidden places of grief, and extract its intrinsic blackness. It is a work of intense, forensic observation; a microscopic examination of a family undone by a tragic loss against a portrait of modern America.

ISBN: 9780008381080
Imprint: 4th Estate – GB
On Sale: 16/06/2020
Pages: 928
List Price: 32.99 AUD

Review: Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

JCO Carthage.jpgIt was only a matter of time before I read Joyce Carol Oates. Statistically the chances were always high; she’s one of the most prolific authors writing today. But when I started working beside a JCO aficionado, the odds improved dramatically. And so, here we are, one JCO book down, only, like, another hundred to go. Game on.

Carthage is my first for no other reason than I spotted it second hand, I had the five bucks in my pocket, and the words from the Financial Times review emblazoned on its cover were encouraging. “A suspense-filled thriller,” it reads; and you know me, I live for suspense, and I love a good thriller. Paid for, walking out, book in hand, I turned it over. The Guardian‘s review slapped the FT’s down: “Not just the suspense thriller it had seemed at first sight,” it reads. Imagine a dramatic piano key change as my thoughts screamed, “Oh no, but I live for suspense, and I love a good thriller! What have I done?!”

What I’d done, it turns out, was select a gem of novel that harbours the foundations of a straightforward missing persons mystery, but rather than focus on the mechanics of the investigation — in fact, it’s barely touched upon — it thrusts the members of the missing teenager’s family, and the Iraq veteran accused of her murder, into the spotlight, exposing their lives before, during and after the disappearance, the narrative twisting through time like the double helix of a DNA strand.

Carthage tackles some very heavy themes; the horror of war and its long-lasting impact; the legitimacy of incarceration and the morality of the death penalty, and life on death row. It explores grief, faith, the audacity of hope. It is a grand novel about family anguish. It is unflinching, tender and heartbreaking, and Oates’ prose reads like a dream. At long last, I am on the JCO bandwagon, desperate to read more, and decide where Carthage sits amongst her substantial body of work.

ISBN: 9780007485758 
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Fourth Estate Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 20-Oct-2014
Country of Publication: United Kingdom