Friday, October 27, 2006

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates

Again a second book from an author who I have a feeling is going to become one of my firm favorites. I read 'A Garden of Earthly Delights' by Oates back in spring. It was published in 1967 and was her second novel. 'The Falls' was published in 2004 and has got to be something like her 30th novel (I can't be bothered to count). There are similarities between the works but if anything I think 'Earthly Delights' is the more 'serious' work but maybe I'm wrong. The interesting thing is that both books use the story of a woman's life as a lens to tell history and make social commentary and so I'm wondering if this is the way that Oates always rights and therefore why she is often considered a 'Great American Writer'. 'Earthly Delights' deals with the depression and is written like Steinbeck but without the romanticism. 'The Falls' has as its historical motif the infamous 'Love Canal' class action suit - the first action of its kind in the USA - connecting environmental pollution to human health effects.

I was actually surprised at how small a role Love Canal actually plays in the book - the summary on the back cover of my copy indicates that it is central to the plot. The initial failed suit however is merely the catalyst for the breakdown of the second marriage of the protagonist Ariah Burnaby. We follow Ariah from the suicide of her first husband on the morning after their wedding night - by throwing himself over Niagara falls. Through her second marriage, birth and childhood of three children, death of her second husband (also by the Falls but this time murdered) and her children's quest in early adulthood to discover the story behind their father's death.

I found the book gripping and quite moving. The character of Ariah is complex from the outset as it is clear that she is not the most mentally stable of women even before her first husband's suicide. Her overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt and her own interpretation of the karmic effects of the happenings of her life drive her story through the book and have a massive (and almost unavoidable) impact on those around her. At first I thought that 'The Falls' lacked the unity of story of 'Earthly Delights' but come to think of it both books hop around - bringing their 'main' characters in and out of focus as she uses the story to bring into focus political and social questions as well as those of marriage and family.

Well, I've still got another 30 or so books and dozens of other works to get through. I can see that Ms Oates will be keeping me busy for many years to come!

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