Each novella in this collection by Joyce Carol Oates is well crafted. While all four stories have elements that initially seem a little unreal, or a little trippy, the threats faced by the narrators are very real. At no point is the safety of any of these women guaranteed, which means the “suspense” touted on the cover is more like a sense of crawling dread. These stories fit well together, taking different angles on a similar theme.
“Cardiff, by the Sea”
A woman receives a call that she’s inherited a house from her previously unknown biological family. Her family greets her warmly, but there’s ambiguity in every scene—are they welcoming, or are they dangerous? The writing is extremely vivid, but the ambiguity remained no matter how well I could visualize each scene or hear each line of dialogue. I admire the construction of this story for how well it kept me off balance.
I hesitate to say this is my favorite story of the collection because the narrator’s stepfather is so absolutely, skin-crawlingly disgusting. There’s a dinner scene in which he turns toward her after ignoring her all day that made me jump in my chair. JCO might be the only author to make me feel genuine fright from such a small gesture—she has an unerring sense for exactly which adjectives to use at every moment. The young narrator is harassed at school and at home, only finding respite when caring for a band of feral cats. She adopts one, Miao Dao, and comes to see the tiny cat as a kind of friend and protector. A very thin ray of optimism helps balance the story, and a little hope goes a long way in this collection.
This story was the most difficult to read because it lacks any shred of optimism. The college-aged narrator sleeps with a TA, gets pregnant, and spends more and more time with an old poet. As much as the narrator tries to see him as harmless, the reader knows he is not. I’ve read a few books and stories by JCO, so I knew this story might go to a dark place, but the violence exceeded what I was prepared to read. Even the joy of reading a well-written story didn’t soften the experience of this one.
“The Surviving Child”
In this story, the narrator marries a man whose first wife killed herself and one of their children. His late wife was a poet, and lines of her poetry are sprinkled through the story, giving her a ghostly presence. In some ways, I was reminded of Rebecca—the new wife living alongside the memory of the old and walking on eggshells. The writing is sharp and lively in all four novellas, but the poetic interjections distinguish this story from the others and fit well with JCO’s style. Unlike the others, too, the threat to the narrator isn’t immediately clear, so the suspense isn’t waiting for the axe to fall, but rather in trying to see where the axe is hidden.
Taken as a whole, it’s an excellent collection even as the subject matter is difficult.
Rating: 4.6 (out of 5.0)
NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic (via NetGalley).
Image credit: Goodreads