Published by Head of Zeus 8 November 2012
384 pp, hardcover, £16.99
Reviewed by Catherine Jones
‘Mommy would take care of her but Marissa knew from reading stories that this could not be so. You had only to turn the page, something would happen.’
In’ The Corn Maiden’, the title story in this seven-piece collection from Joyce Carol Oates, 11-year-old Marissa Bantry disappears from affluent Skatshill-on-Hudson. With silky blonde hair to her shoulders, Marissa had ‘very little sense of herself and how others regarded her’ and had become a target for the pressing spite of her peers. ‘Already in fifth grade it had begun, a perplexing girl-meanness.’
When Leah, her mother, returns late to the silent apartment they share, the truth dawns that her vulnerable daughter – the product of a long-gone relationship with a medical student – is missing. A bright drop-out, Leah is ‘aware of herself as one might see oneself on a video monitor behaving with conspicuous normality though the circumstances have shifted, and are not normal’ as she realizes her life must be exposed to the jumping greed of the media.
‘The man in the 7-Eleven would learn she was a single mother, not married. And that the numerous six-packs of Coors she bought had not been for a husband but for her.’ (‘Dial 911 your life is no longer your own’)
And so unfolds a tale of hunger and malice, naivety and horror, in a narrative peopled by loners. Oates, author of more than 70 works, winner of the National Book Award, and twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote this selection of stories about life souring, unloved children, and sudden death over a 15-year-period. In ‘The Corn Maiden’, which forms around one third of the book, she excels at depicting the frailty and power of the outsider.
On the periphery of Marissa’s life has been teenager Jude Trahern, the lone grandchild of a wealthy legal family, who lives with her distant, half-blind ‘nagnagnagging’ grandmother on a vast estate.
In encounters with Jude, lone wolf computer teacher Mikal Zallman saw ‘a guarded rodent look, furtive, anxious, somehow appealing’ but he dismisses her. He is not crazy; he knows how to behave with pupils, and keeps himself to himself. Hours before he is brought in by the police as a suspect in Marissa’s disappearance, he has been driving along the Hudson ‘where the river landscape so mesmerizes the eye, you wonder why you’d ever given a damn for all that’s petty, inconsequential’.
The horror gathers pace along with the frenzied activity prompted by missing children. ‘Like a sudden bloom of daffodils there appeared overnight, everywhere in Skatskill, the smiling likeness of MARISSA BANTRY 11.’
Leah foresees herself ‘performing clumsily and stumbling over her lines in the genre missing child/pleading mother’. Though distraught, she acknowledges the irony that in the tabloids, the photos of the missing girl, mother, and suspect are printed side by side – ‘a mock family’.
Broken families abound in this collection. In ‘Beersheba’, a distant step-father receives a phone call that takes him in an upscale Toyota to a place where ‘cold rose from the earth like departing spirits’. Nine-year-old Jessica in ‘Nobody Knows My Name’ has the bitter precocity to realize ‘you must tell adults only what they want you to tell them so they will love you’.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this so much. Oates’s sharp prose brings a subtle menace and truth to the kind of situations exploited on true crime channels. My inclination was to read at a pace but I frequently stopped to admire and absorb.