‘The Gravedigger’s Daughter’ by Joyce Carol Oates


2007, 582 p.

There are not many authors whose novels listed on the inside pages take up two pages- and they’re not even all listed there!  Joyce Carol Oates is an amazingly prolific American writer: she has over 117 books (novels, essays, poetry) under her belt.  I like her.  I’ve read several of her books both under her name and under pen-names and I’ve always found her a good, if disturbing, read.   But I’m not so sure about this one.

A young woman, the daughter of an abusive man meets a stranger on the canal path.  “Are you Hazel Jones?” he asks.   She wasn’t Hazel Jones then, but she was to become Hazel Jones in the future after marrying  an abusive man of her own.  Embracing this new identity, she leaves behind her own family life, her liminal status as a refugee and her unhappy marriage to become a woman she had never met and possibly never existed.

The story is based on Oates’ own grandmother’s story, which is rather a departure from her usually rather gothic and event-driven plots.  Perhaps that’s why I didn’t particularly warm to the book. Even though she has written books based on real-life characters (Blonde, for example, is based on Marilyn Munroe), her reason for creating her Rebecca Schwarts character is emotional rather than narrative.  I wonder if she was hamstrung by a commitment to honour her ancestral connection instead of letting her rather vivid and convoluted imagination take flight to enrich the book enough to carry it through nearly 600 pages.  Quite frankly, not a lot happens.  The ending, based on a chapter published in a magazine as Oates is wont to do,  seems completely disconnected with what has come previously and just sits there, resolving nothing.

All in all, rather disappointing.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library, then La Trobe University Library when I was not able to renew it because I’d taken so long to read it!

Read because: I felt like a long, meaty read and I’d enjoyed JCO in the past.

2 responses to “‘The Gravedigger’s Daughter’ by Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Sad to hear that this one was disappointing. I’ve read a couple of JCOs. Some I remember as being ok, Zombie I remember as astonishing. Her breadth of scope is extraordinary.

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