Joyce Carol Oates reminds me of long-distance who has perfected her art over a long period of time. (She is in fact a runner and has written that she works out her plots and the structural problems of her novels while she is running.) I have only read three of her books. That I have the goal of reading all of them says much about her ability to hook a reader into the story and keep them there. When she hits her stride the writing is taut, economic and well paced with no wastage on sensationalism or superficial detours. In Daddy Love for instance, thump, thump, thump sums up the horror of Gideon Cash’s life as a child abducted by a predator as Oates conjures up every parent’s nightmare from the perspective of the abductor and the abducted.
Oates’s anger is palpable beneath the surface of her words as she creates the despicable Daddy Love; lover, hippy, evangelical preacher, murderer and child predator and she doesn’t spare the reader the details of what life must be like in the hands of dear old Daddy. Some reviews I have read have suggested that reading is something people do for entertainment and that with this dark tale of a putrid section of society Oates oversteps the mark. The question then becomes what do we expect novels to do for us? Do we want them to make us think about the world in new ways, or even at all, or do we want to sit back and passively absorb neatly redemptive confections to feed our fantasies that everything will work out in the end.
Things don’t always work out well in the end. People are tested, maimed, disfigured and broken physically and psychologically sometimes through no fault of their own. Should their stories be swept under the carpet because they are too upsetting to read? (And this muteness when confronted by another’s tragedy is a theme that weaves through the book through the shattered bodies and lives of the family that is left behind). I read once that fiction offers a space in which writers, should they be of a mind to take up the challenge of social dysfunction, may ethically imagine and bring to the light or speak for those who are voiceless – either because they are not present or because the stories they have to tell are abhorrent to the rest of us.
The world is full of abusers and abused children who have no words to articulate their physical and emotional brutalisation. Daddy Love gives a nail-biting masterful and hauntingly sad voice to something that has become all too depressingly familiar on the evening news – child abduction and how little we know, or care, about what happens around us. Throughout this book I kept seeing the five-year old face of Madeleine McCann staring back at me and I wondered if she is still out there.