Book Review: The Gravedigger’s Daughter
Posted May 8, 2010on:
The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates, HarperCollins, 2007, 582 pages.
Your writing is so beautiful, so intricate, so compelling that I expect pleasure and delight. But I do not enjoy myself when I read your books, because the harsh reality of your stories and the lives of your characters is haunting and disturbing. The words and plot lines draw me in against my better judgment, and I choose to read on and read on. I count pages and yearn to be finished, to move on and put your painful tale behind me, and yet I am completely absorbed and captivated by it.
I realized in this novel what happens: I do not generally like your characters. In this story, Rebecca Schwart/Hazel Jones does not move me to affection or appreciation. I do not relate to her, connect with her, understand her. For the first half of the story, the story of her life as the gravedigger’s daughter and the wife of Niles Tignor, I pitied her. You make me feel compassion for her, and sympathy—but not love or even friendliness. I do not think I would like her if we were to meet.
I would much prefer to read a book that evokes love in me. I want to like some characters and hate others. I want a book that I hate to end, because I will miss the new imaginary friends the author has created for me. When I reached the end of The Gravedigger’s Daughter, cryptic though it was, I was just glad that the character might come to a rest, and that I would be free from her grasp. The struggle of her life, a life of “keeping-going,” was relentless. Rebecca/Hazel survives, but she does not ever seem to find healing. It is the ravenous, fastidious, relentless need to protect herself that keeps me from loving her—she will not let anyone love her, including the reader.
And yet, while I do not like her, and I did not enjoy the book, I admire it greatly. It seems to me a particularly grueling skill to create a character that defies connection. To write a character that people love requires far less art, because we can write the best in ourselves and the best of our feelings to evoke delight. You have created something different and distinct, a character that stands, fully defined, on her own, without needing to be loved or hated in order to exist. You have created something that is more real and less fantasy, with the complications of real feelings, including apathy and pity and indifference. That is powerful writing, and I can at least be grateful to have experienced it.