Book Review: Joyce Carol Oates, Mudwoman

Hi!

I’m easing back to normal after almost full-time politics for a month. So here’s a book review.

I came across the now aged American Joyce Carol Oates’ writing a long time ago and I found the short stories compelling, sharply-described and often chilling. Later I tried one of her novels and couldn’t get into it for some reason. Then came “Mudwoman”.

The basic story is powerful. A mad mother drowns her two small children in a muddy creek but one of them survives and is adopted. She does very well in life, becomes a well-regarded academic and while still quite young, Principal (or whatever the title was) of a prestigious university. But she’s done this by suppressing her past, which comes back to bite her.

I ought to have been enthralled, but I wasn’t. Oates seemed to me to lay some things on with a trowel, especially the contrast between the top academic’s authority and intelligence and her vulnerability – and her femininity. While the question of how her two worlds would interact had plenty of mystery, some things seemed too obvious, not done enough by suggestion and indirection, and there was a subtext which might legitimately offend feminists. There can be conflict between masculinity and good leadership and administration, too. The descriptive writing was powerful, but I was not carried along.

There was another issue. The girl had been adopted by a Quaker couple and as a Quaker, I read with that mixture of interest and suspicion typical of someone deeply into something who finds it described by a writer less into it. I know people reading from that position can be hyper-critical, but still, it seemed to me Oates didn’t understand Quakers. Of course, there are differences between British and American Quakerism – some American Quakers have paid ministers, which for us is a bit like finding Catholics who refuse to have anything to do with the Pope – but from what I’ve seen and heard, the similarities are enormous.

Yes, I could recognise the vague goodwill of the couple, but not the always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life attitude. Plenty of Quakers I know can and have felt the depths. Oates refers three or four times to Quakers putting the communal ahead of the individual and that seems to me a misunderstanding. My perception (and I wasn’t brought up a Quaker) is that Quakers are both intensely individual (to the point of magnificent stubbornness sometimes, or eccentricity) and communal – that we don’t see the two as conflicting. I did check online to see what Oates’ religious background was – Catholic upbringing and now atheist.

Now here’s an admission for a reviewer. I didn’t finish the book. It was on loan from a library and someone else wanted it.

Maybe the real reason for my struggling was that the book had so little joy in it?

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