Rape: A Love Story

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Rape: A Love Story, Joyce Carol Oates, book reviewIf you’re looking for a controversial title, for a book that you’d maybe not want to open on the bus or the Underground for fear of raised eyebrows, then look no further than Joyce Carol Oates’ 2006 book Rape  a Love Story. It’s one of the most uncomfortable and stomach-turning titles I’ve seen in a long time and not a book that I felt I wanted to leave lying around. It’s the sort of title that makes you imagine horrifying scenarios of dysfunctional human relationships. I felt ill at ease about having it in the house, I didn’t want to have to explain why I would have such a horrible-sounding book in my collection so I wanted to read it pretty much as soon as it arrived. The title raises far too many questions – not least whether it needs some punctuation between the first and second words to stop it looking rather aggressively like a command rather than a description. Indeed it’s only the cover that doesn’t punctuate; once inside it’s clearer that the intention is Rape: a Love Story.

In one of the USA’s most famous honeymoon hotspots, Niagara Falls, a group of friends are having a party to celebrate July 4th. Thirty-one year old widow Teena Maguire and her 12 year old daughter Bethel, are at Teena’s boyfriend’s house and decide to walk home. Teena has had a few drinks and foolishly makes a mistake that nearly costs both their lives. Rather than take the well-lit route home along the road, she decides to walk back through the park. A gang of young local men, drunk and high on methamphetamine force the mother and daughter into a filthy boat house, physically beat both of them and when the daughter wriggles away and hides in a corner, they rape and kick Teena so badly that she’s left bleeding on the floor, close to death. After the men have gone, Bethel escapes to the street and flags down help in the shape of John Dromoor, a local policeman who becomes much more emotionally involved in the case than he knows to be wise.

As the book progresses it doesn’t take long for the men to be identified – and even less time for the rumours and allegations to start; rumours not about the violent young men but about their victim. Teena’s only crime was to be too young and pretty, to dress provocatively and not to conform to people’s expectations of a young widow. In her cut off shorts and vest tops, with her pretty face and sexy figure, sympathy seems to be hard to come by – never mind that she spends weeks in intensive care fighting for her life after the men leave her to bleed to death on the floor when they’ve finished their ‘business’ with her. And it doesn’t help that her ‘boyfriend’ Casey is separated from his wife and children in a nearby town. Again, never mind that it wasn’t Teena who broke up the marriage – having a married boyfriend is just one more nail in the coffin of Teena’s reputation. If she’d been a dowdy, middle aged woman in sensible shoes and comfy slacks, would they have been less inclined to at first hint and then outright allege that “She asked for it?”

Once the physical wounds are healed and Teena is out of hospital, we go to court with her and Bethel for the initial hearing. The mother of two of the men sits in the front row muttering “Bitch! Whore! Liar” at Teena. Her husband hires his ‘boys’ a top defence lawyer – a man with no qualms about destroying the victims if it keeps his clients out of prison or gets them a reduced sentence. Threatening notes are left at Teena and Bethel’s home, Bethel gets bullied at school – older girls who know the attackers or are related to them are telling people that she’s no better than her mother. There’s graffiti on her locker, on the walls of the washrooms, school friends want nothing to do with her. Bethel’s life ended on that night in the boathouse – what follows is something much less than a life.

As I was reading this I feared I could see exactly where it was going – that the societal psychological ‘rape’ of Teena would be every bit as painful and devastating as the physical rape of July 4th. I could see that the only way out for the attackers was to totally destroy their victims in a long, drawn-out and painful way by raping their minds just as comprehensively as they had raped Teena’s body. And to do it within the constraints of the legal system. I was reminded of the 1988 Oscar-winning film ‘The Accused’ in which Jodie Foster plays the victim and Kelly McGillis her lawyer. What I wasn’t expecting – and what I loved – was the quiet, covert but beautifully effective way that Teena’s ‘avenging angel’ takes things into his own hands. This is the love story of the title – the quiet, hidden revenge acted out without the knowledge of the victims and delivered so much more effectively than the ‘law’ could ever do. Yes, it is a love story – but a very strange one and not one that fits any of the usual moulds.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as not saying anything new – to claim that the whole debate around ‘asking for it’ has been given many millions of words of attention over the years. They say prostitution is the oldest profession – I suspect rape is equally the oldest crime, and no doubt since year dot, there has been debate about whether the victim’s behaviour contributed to her attack. It’s true that there’s nothing new but if every book needed to only say what hadn’t been said before, our books shops would soon be out of business and Amazon wouldn’t have much to do. It’s sometimes not WHAT you write that matters – it’s HOW you write it that counts.

JCO teaches creative writing at Princeton University and at times this book reads like a virtuoso performance in writing technique. There’s nothing ‘straight’ about the delivery of this book – she plays tricks, writing incomplete sentences, keeping us waiting for pages to get to the point of the overlong paragraph, taunting us with the expectation of what’s still to come and then contrasting that with short sentences that deliver far more than anyone can expect. Her opening paragraph runs for nearly four pages and tells us everything we need to know not only about the rape but also about how fast the crime is turned against Teena, how quickly she becomes the cause and not just the victim of the rape. It’s impressive stuff – we’re hooked by every word. She writes most but not all of the book from the perspective of the daughter, directing it to the reader as if WE are that daughter and are reflecting on what’s happened to us. It’s clever, emotional and very powerful writing. One small warning for anyone who hates bad language, there’s plenty of swearing but it’s entirely appropriate in context – mind you if you hate swearing, you’re probably going to hate this book for lots more reasons than a bit of ‘effing and blinding’. It’s raw, painful stuff and not for those of a delicate disposition who only read ‘love’ as something that happens in chick lit or Mills and Boon.

If this had been written by anyone other than JCO, I’m sure I wouldn’t have wanted to read it – but I knew that with a writer as accomplished as her, with such long-established and oft-rewarded credentials, it was certain that there would be something clever and thought provoking behind her choice of title. I first read JCO back in the early 1990s, picking up a cheap copy of her haunting 1992 short novel ‘Black Water’, her take on the Ted Kennedy car accident at Chappaquiddick which ended his presidential aspirations and the life of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Since then I’ve bought a lot of JCO books and not read most of them because she writes SUCH long books and she’s given to rambling worse than I do. When I saw this book on the swap list of a member who wanted one of my books from Readitswapit.co.uk, I was careful to check the page count before adding another dust-collector to my bookshelf. Seeing it was one of her short novels, I grabbed it and read it the day after it arrived, polishing the whole thing off in just a few hours. I feel absolutely fired up to go back again and look once more for more of her shorter novels. This one weighs in at just over 150 pages and packs so much punch that nothing more is needed. It’s every bit as memorable as ‘Black Water’ and I want more and I want it soon.

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Rape: A Love Story
by Joyce Carol Oates

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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