15th Jun 2012
Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates, author of the recently published Mudwoman, has been writing award-winning works since the sixties. It is therefore no surprise that her latest work is an intricate, haunting masterpiece that was both a pleasure and an ordeal to read.
Mudwoman is a three year-old girl who is abandoned to die by her religiously zealous mother, thrown into the mudflats of the Black Snake River.
Rescued by chance, she spends her childhood trying to grow into the normal little girl – Meredith ‘Merry‘ Neukirchen – her adopted parents wish her to be, but always feeling separate, different, and never quite escaped from her origins in the mud.
There is something about Merry, though, and by the time the novel properly opens she is in her forties and has fought her way to the prestigious position of University President at a leading institution in the United States.
Now fondly known as M.R, she has learned to be efficient, to be well liked, and to be a public speaker. Or so she thinks. Things start to unravel, perplexingly slowly at first, but soon Oates’ prose takes on a runaway train pace and M.R’s life and mind disintegrate, falling through her fingers with frustrating ease.
This is not an easy read. At its most basic level, the reason I say this is because the University setting leads the central characters to frequently discuss philosophy in academic language, but that’s not a flaw – just don’t expect this book to be gentle.
The other reasons this is not exactly a page-turner (but is immensely enjoyable nonetheless) are the twisted chronology that help paint a complicated, painful picture of M.R’s psychology, the sometimes runaway sentence structure that gives the novel its gripping pace, and the disturbing, sometimes harrowingly-detailed hallucinations that puncture M.R’s breakdown. Oates drags this novel to your eyeballs kicking and screaming, and is completely unapologetic about it.
As the first female President of the University, unsurprisingly gender issues make some noise throughout (not least her lead character’s name which looks suspiciously like ‘Mr’, presumably for a reason). Remarkably, Oates manages to portray this without martyring her lead character, or whining about the obvious persecution she faces. Overall, this makes her message clearer and more potent – sometimes, things are clear enough without being said aloud.
This is a book that is crisply drawn together, with deliciously vibrant, real characters and a consistently artful tone. Without revealing too much, it also ends with a bang rather than the more popular whimper that seems to have propagated so many of my recent reads, which was unbelievably satisfying yet simultaneously unsettling. Oates reveals her expertise at every twist and turn, proving she is still very much a delight to read.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys a challenging read, anyone who works in the University profession, those with an interest in psychology, those who like to work through books that are chunky and unforgiving.