Review by Billy O’Callaghan
Joyce Carol Oates
Head of Zeus, £16.99;Kindle: $11.46
Review: Billy O’Callaghan
The skill in which Joyce Carol Oates replays a single moment over and over again from varying angles through the opening chapters of her latest novel is nothing short of virtuoso. It is, of course, a moment of the deepest horror, one of those life-defining instants that taps into the very spine of every parent’s worst fear: the idea of a child being abducted.
In April of 2006, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Dinah Whitcomb and her precocious five-year-old son, Robbie, have just left their local shopping mall and are searching for their car, when she is struck with a hammer blow to the head and the boy snatched from her.
The kidnapper is Chester Czechi, better known as Chester Cash, the self-professed Daddy Love of the title, a fanatical travelling preacher, sociopath and paedophile. He easily evades a statewide police alert, imprisons the boy in an isolated New Jersey farmhouse, and following the Catholic Church dictum that “if you secure a child before the age of seven, his soul is yours”, begins a regime of torture, molestation and brainwash. He has done this before, often. He renames the child ‘Gideon’, adopting him as his son and companion.
Six years pass. Dinah was left severely disabled and disfigured during the abduction after being dragged for several yards by the van. Her marriage to Perry, a disc-jockey, suffers inevitable strain, but holds together, and they refuse to give up hope of one day being reunited with their son.
After so long, though, ‘Gideon’ has suffered deep psychological damage. He has come to love, hate and fear his so-called father but is beginning to outlive his value in Daddy Love’s eyes.
This is a novel that at once repulses and compels. It is a searing consideration of men’s potential for depravity, but it is also the story of familial love, and the ability of the human spirit to endure almost any torment. Throughout, the writing is subtle and suggestive, insinuating rather than describing the horror.
Joyce Carol Oates has spent the past half-century exposing the most unspeakable horrors lurking in our daily lives. With a body of work that boasts some 60 novels and almost 30 collections of short stories, as well as several volumes of essays, plays and poetry, she is perennially listed as a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize.
Lauded for her perception and insight into the human condition, and for the clean persuasion of her prose, probably her greatest gift as a writer is her unerring willingness to shine a light on the world’s darkest, dirtiest corners. You may not want to look at what lies hidden in those corners, but you won’t be able to look away.
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