My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“After she was gang-raped, kicked and beaten and left to die on the floor of the filthy boathouse at Rocky Point Park. After she was dragged into the boathouse by the five drunken guys – unless there were six, or seven – and her twelve-year-old daughter screaming Let us go! Don’t hurt us! Please don’t hurt us! After she had been chased by the guys like a pack of dogs jumping their prey, turning her ankle, losing both her high-heeled sandals on the path beside the lagoon. After…”
This is how Oates’s story begins, with the unspeakable brutality of a gang of drunken youths on the fourth of July. After making the fateful decision to walk the ‘long way’ home, Teena Maguire’s life would never be the same again. For that night, she would be raped in the presence of her daughter Bethie, and left for dead. The horrible event rocks the sleepy city of Niagara Falls as Teena is discovered the next day by NFPD Officer Dromoor. As a Gulf War veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm and who had seen the worst of human suffering, the sight of Teena’s broken body was something he would never forget.
But that isn’t the end; there is an ‘after’ and it is this dreadful ‘after’ that Oates focusses on with such alacrity. What happens to the victims? The assailants? Their families? The community? What happens at the hearing, and how does it affect peoples’ opinions? For Teena, Bethie and her elderly mother, every day is a battle to survive through the shame of what has happened and the fear and loathing of the community and their attackers, who only live two blocks away from them.
However, something strange begins to happen. First, one of the rapists is shot dead, then another two go AWOL. Before long people begin to suspect that there is a silent angel of justice at work. But who is this mysterious person taking the law into their own hands?
In ‘Rape: A Love Story’, Joyce Carol Oates takes the common themes and transforms it into a uniquely intense and uncomfortable experience. She achieves this by cleverly alternating the narrative between third and second person perspective, which in turn is largely addressed to Bethie as if it were a kind of confessional. This has two effects; it helps to convey at times the pure, raw emotion that needed to bring the past to life and at other times the statistical objectivity that is crucial to the parts dealing with the scenes of the trial and the hospital. This places Oates’ novel apart from others, as it enables the reader to see the story from different perspectives.
Oates also casts an eye on the corruption of the justice system as the trial rapidly turns Teena from victim to the accused party. A whole slew of social prejudices crop up as Teena, an attractive single mother, is looked upon as a provocateur that ‘had it coming to her’ and is ostracized along with her daughter. As with all small communities faced with big tragedies, this strange dynamic suddenly unearths many suppressed feelings, grudges and misgivings that Oates is especially successful at portraying.
Other themes that are explored are luck and destiny, justice and closure. Although the book is fairly short (150 pages), Oates manages to cover a great number of the difficulties that face women with this kind of tragedy.
“There was a final shake of the dice. Another time it might have been averted. When Casey said, ‘Teena, let me drive you two home. Wait a minute, I’ll get the car,’ and your mother thanked him and kissed him on the cheek, telling him not to bother – ‘We want to walk, don’t we, Bethie? It’s a perfect night.’”
Bethie in particular keeps thinking about that fateful night, about what would have happened if they hadn’t taken the walk through the park. The desperate wish to somehow go back in time and set things right is an impossibility that permeates the text and makes a very strong impression on the reader. Despite everything though, Teena and Bethie do get a closure of sorts and are even able to carry on with their lives thanks to their saviour who liberated them from the crippling fear of living with their enemies. Even though this is about a rape, elements of sacrifice and of a ‘fatedness’ with the unknown saviour adds the unexpected, unusual ‘love story’ twist to this tale. I think this book will stay with me for a long time to come.
I give this 4/5 stars.
- Joyce Carol Oates sneers at those who never heard of ‘JCO’ until her NRA death wish (twitchy.com)
- Fleeting Tweets From Joyce Carol Oates (litkicks.com)
- IoS book review: The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, By Joyce Carol Oates (independent.co.uk)
- The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Mudwoman, By Joyce Carol Oates (independent.co.uk)
- Book Review: “The Accursed” by Joyce Carol Oates (waronterrornews.typepad.com)
- December-January’s Book: The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates (wnyc.org)