Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book Review - The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates

When I pick up a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, I want to feel I’m in the hands of a writer who really knows what she’s doing. Oates has published so many books, I’ve lost count of just how many, though I’m pretty certain this is her thirty-sixth novel. But even though I want to trust this author to take me on an interesting and unforgettable literary journey, there’s always been something about Oates’ work that won’t let me get truly involved. Some of her books, like Solstice, just leave me cold, while others, like American Appetites and Blonde are books I enjoyed, to an extent, but still couldn’t find any connection with the characters. Still others, like Bellefleur, are books I thought I might love, but books I gave up on and didn’t even finish. So, when I decided to read The Gravedigger’s Daughter, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea if I was going to love the book, hate it, or something in between, but enough time had gone by since my previous attempt at reading Oates to give one of her books another try.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is the story of Rebecca Schwart, whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1936 for a small town a little south of Niagara Falls. Rebecca, herself, was born on the ship while it was in New York Harbor. Although her father, Jacob Schwart, was a well-liked math teacher at a Munich boys’ school, as well as a skilled pressman, in America, the only job Jacob can get is that of a gravedigger in semi-rural Milburn, New York. By this time, Jacob is “...a broken man...a man whose guts had been eaten out by rats.” He and his family, which includes his half-mad wife, Anna, take up residence in a small stone cottage near the cemetery gate. In a nice bit of symbolism, the very water the Schwart family drinks is polluted with the spirits of the dead.

Rebecca’s eldest brother Herschel, a ne’er-do-well who forgets his German without ever gaining a mastery of English, flees town after committing a crime. The younger son, August, also walks away from Jacob after enduring one too many cruelties. Both brothers leave without so much as a “goodbye” for their little sister, Rebecca. It isn’t that they didn’t like her. They’ve just learned what their father has always taught them: “Never say it.” Let the past be the past; let it, like the family’s Jewishness, remain dead and buried.

For Jacob and Anna, however, the past can never truly be left in the past; it can never really die. Jacob grows more and more haunted by the Nazi demons he wanted to leave behind, and more specifically by an act of betrayal he committed in order to get his family out of Germany. His past, in combination with his prejudiced and humiliated present, finally drives Jacob to an incredible act of violence and cruelty that both traumatizes Rebecca and yet frees her to go into the world alone and reshape her life.

Male violence is a theme Oates has revisited time and time again, and I have no doubt she’ll revisit it in future books as well. At least three times in this book, Rebecca Schwart flees male violence. Despite the fact that Jacob Schwart used to tell his daughter, “You are born here, they will not hurt you,” Rebecca learns that yes, indeed, people will hurt her, and they do. In one of the novel’s creepiest set pieces, Rebecca encounters a man on the path she takes home from work, only to discover later that he’s a serial killer with many victims, and that she, herself, almost joined their ranks. And, in another nice bit of symbolism, Rebecca recalls how the only game she ever played with her father was one in the cemetery, in which Jacob pretended not to see her. Rebecca knows that “Rebecca Schwart” needs to disappear. For good.

And so, after one violent episode, Rebecca renames herself “Hazel Jones,” not knowing that Hazel Jones is the name of a woman who died at the hands of a violent man; her young son, Niley becomes Zacharias. Still, Rebecca will learn, as did her parents, that our past is always with us, no matter how hard we try to deny and outrun it.

For Rebecca Schwart’s past comes to haunt even Hazel Jones. She remembers how, as a young child, when she was still Rebecca, she was told the Morgensterns were coming to live with her own family, and she would have a big sister in her cousin, Freyda Morgenstern. The ship the Morgensterns were traveling on was turned away from the US and sent back to Germany, however, and the entire Morgenstern family was thought to have died. All the Schwarts have left of the Morgenstern family is an old photograph, and Rebecca spends much time gazing at the little girl who looks out at her from the photo. Freyda Morgenstern finally becomes an imaginary friend, and one that Rebecca will encounter much later in her life, after she’s left at least the financial poverty of the past behind for a life of wealth and privilege.

I thought Rebecca/Hazel was a fully realized and complex character, and though Oates certainly wants us to sympathize/empathize with her, she isn’t afraid to let us see the real Rebecca/Hazel, warts and all. And Rebecca/Hazel certainly has faults. She’s far from perfect, and I greatly preferred her that way. The secondary characters – Jacob, Anna, Herschel, and August – weren’t given such complexity. They have their identities, assigned to them by Oates, and they act in accordance with these assigned identities. They aren’t caricatures, by any means, but neither do they thrive.

The writing, of course, is Joyce Carol Oates, and Oates does have a unique style, though I would never term her a “prose stylist” in the sense of say, Edna O’Brien. Oates’ writing, to me, always seems a little heavy and turbulent and at odds with itself, and even, at times, rushed. In The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Oates had a maddening habit of using “that” instead of “which” in a nonrestrictive clause, e.g., “...most of the papers continued to run Chet Gallagher’s column, that had won national awards.” At first, I thought it might be an attempt at a new stylistic device, but later, I decided no, it was far too awkward and ugly for that. It was carelessness, and I’m very surprised at such carelessness in a writer with as many books under her belt as Oates.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is at its most engaging when Rebecca/Hazel is narrating, and especially when she’s describing her growing love for Chet Gallagher, son of a wealthy family, who plays jazz piano and wants Rebecca to let him give both her and Niley/Zach a new chance at life. The book loses power when Oates switches to the very angry Niley/Zach’s point of view or to Chet’s, even when they are talking about Rebecca/Hazel. Unfortunately, Niley/Zach and Chet simply aren’t as complex or as interesting as Rebecca.

I’ve already mentioned the rich symbolism to be found in this book. There are many vivid descriptions as well. For example, Jacob is described as a “...troll a creature who has emerged from the earth, slightly bent, broken-backed and with his head carried at an awkward angle so that he seemed always to be peering at the world suspiciously.” Now that is really first rate writing.

For those readers who are putting off reading the book lest it be too depressing, never fear. Though it tackles weighty themes – male violence, the Holocaust, the guilt of survivors – this is not a depressing book. On the other hand, it’s not exactly life affirming, either. And there’s no lightness or joy in this book. I guess I would call it “interesting” and “gritty.” At times the narrative was possessed of such grittiness that I felt I had to take a long, hot shower, and that might not be a bad thing as far as this book goes. (I shower or bathe every night, regardless.) At other times, the book felt very courageous.

Anyone who’s read much of Oates’ work will know that she has a penchant for melodrama, and she likes to pin her novels to some “big event” that happened in the past. And so it is in The Gravedigger’s Daughter. Any book that contains as much violence and anger as this one is going to slip into melodrama at times, though for the most part, Oates does manage to keep it under control. Of course, the “big event” in this book is the Holocaust, though this is not, in any way, a “Holocaust book,” at least it’s not to my way of thinking.

I like ambiguous endings in books. I don’t need everything tied up in a nice, neat little package like it’s waiting for Christmas morning. Some authors try so hard to come up with the “perfect” ending that the result is an ending that just doesn’t work, that’s not organic, that doesn’t flow from the events that took place in the book. Better, I think, to leave some things open-ended. That said, the ending Oates wrote for The Gravedigger’s Daughter was just beyond the pale. I thought there were pages missing from my book. Really. I’m still not totally convinced there aren’t. I stayed up last night to finish this book, and the ending left me dazed and confused. I have no idea what I was supposed to take from that. If anyone does, please let me in on the secret.

And of course, there’s the epilogue. The epilogue takes place twenty-five years after the events in the novel proper, and it consists of an exchange of letters between a sixty-two year old Hazel, who is now Rebecca again, and her long lost cousin, Freyda Morgenstern, who apparently did not perish at sea. At first, I loved this epilogue. It brings the novel full circle and plunges Rebecca back into the midst of her family again, even if the person pulling her in is a long lost cousin she’s never even met. Rebecca and Freyda never seem to be on the same page, however. One seems to want the relationship, while the other does not, then the tide turns, and the pursuer becomes the pursued. I thought the point of these letters was to show us that one can change his or her name over and over again, but one really can’t cut family ties. The family Rebecca ran away from as a young woman is the family she needs in middle age. Now, however, I’m not so sure of the point. For me, that’s typical with Joyce Carol Oates. She often raises more questions than she answers.

Most of Oates’ books do end with a question, but it’s a question that has some relevance to all that has gone before. I’ve never seen an Oates’ ending quite like this one before. The final words of the book – “Yet I think I should come to Lake Worth, to see you. Should I?” – just sort of leave the reader with a sense of disbelief more than anything else, I think. I could feel my thoughts reverberating through the silence. Maybe that’s the point. Once again, I don’t know. For a while last night, I thought that after thirty-six novels and sixty odd books, Joyce Carol Oates just didn’t care, and if readers didn’t like the way she ended her books, well, they could just go write their own and end them any darn way they pleased.

So, did I like the book, or did I dislike the book? I’m not sure. I know I didn’t love it. I don’t think many/any readers are going to love this book. This isn’t Possession or Great Expectations or Jane Eyre or The Woman in White where readers turn the last page, close the book, sigh, and say, “Wow! What a book!” I did, however, greatly admire the book. I felt I learned something, but I’m not sure what. I think every reader is going to react very differently to this book, much more so than with most books from other authors.

All in all, I’m glad I read The Gravedigger’s Daughter, and I’m glad I revisited Oates. Now, I wonder how long it’ll be before I’m tempted to pick up another one of this very polarizing author’s books. Honestly, I have no idea.


Recommended: This is Joyce Carol Oates. Read at your own peril.

Note: Oates has said she based this novel, in part, on her maternal great-grandmother, who, she learned, was Jewish. For those of you who aren't familiar with Joyce Carol Oates, many of her books take place in upper New York state, the place where Oates, herself, is from.


Anonymous said...

I finished The Gravediggers Daughter late last night. I don't know what I expected but certainly not the bland ending that I got. I too thought there were pages missing and actually checked again today to see if this was so.
I have read many of JCO's books and have enjoyed them tremendously. I think that "We Were the Mulvaneys" was a masterpiece of hers. "Gravedigger...." was captivating until the last 20 or 30 pages. It was almost as if the author got tired of writing. Maybe she did.
I enjoyed your review. Thank you.
Donna DeSolis

Literary Corner Cafe said...

I agree about the ending, Donna. I mean did Hazel die? What happened to her? I grew to care about her, so I wanted to know.

Thank you for the comment and Happy Easter.