The Sunday Salon – The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Last Sunday I wrote that I’d started The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates. I’m still reading it. I really shouldn’t write much about it as I haven’t finished it and I’m wondering how it is going to end. I thought I could predict the ending but then something happened which made me think, maybe I was wrong, but maybe not. It’s a dark book, quite violent in parts which I don’t really like, but then I don’t have to visualise all the violence – not like watching something on TV or film such as Wire In the Blood, which is just gross. I’ve decided not to watch any more in the series, having turned it off during the first programme.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is very much a book of two halves, split between Rebecca’s life as a child, living with her father, Jacob Schwart, a troll-like figure of a man and Anna,  her mother and her two brothers. They are a Jewish family who emigrated to America before the Second World War, fleeing from the Nazis. Her father, originally a maths teacher can only get work as a gravedigger and as the story unfolds we see the effect this has on him and inevitably on his wife and children. Denying they are Jewish, Rebecca grows up to be fearful of the others and after a terrifying and vividly described episode full of blood and gore in which her parents both die she eventually meets Niles Tignor. Life with Niles is full of danger and sickening violence towards her and her son Niley. It was with some relief that I found the second half of the book is a lot lighter in tone as Rebecca, now Hazel Jones makes a life for herself and her son, now known as Zack.  She at last meets a man, Chet Gallagher, a jazz-playing journalist from a wealthy family, who wants to look after her and Zack, encouraging his musical talent, and she uses all her cunning to make the most of her life with him.

So this is a book about prejudice, poverty, humiliation, suffering, and hiding your identity/creating a new personality for yourself, denying the past yet seemingly unable to escape from its consequences. The male characters are all unattractive, even repulsive and I found it hard to feel much sympathy for Rebecca/Hazel as she suffered and struggled to escape the tragedy that seems to follow her. Only Chet and Zack aroused my sympathy. Just occasionally I could see in Zack the inheritance of his father’s violence simmering just below the surface. The parent/child relationships are never easy in this book! I always find Oates’s books compelling reading despite the pessimism. Is there hope for Rebecca/Hazel – so far I can’t see it?

The questions I had on reading the opening chapters have mainly been answered – I only have about 50 pages left to read. I do have one little niggle about the way Oates writes sometimes in short, abrupt incomplete sentences, which break up the flow of reading too much.

Mainly, I suppose, The Gravedigger’s Daughter is about life and how we live it. Just a couple of quotes to end on. The first is Hazel’s thoughts about life and movies (for a while she worked as an usherette):

Stories looped back on themselves. No one got anywhere. She knew beforehand what actors would say, even as the camera opened a “new” scene. She knew when an audience would laugh, though each audience was new and their laughter was spontaneous. She knew what music cues signalled even when she wasn’t watching the screen. It gave you a confused sense of what to expect in life. For in life there is no music, you have no cues. Most things happen in silence. You live your life forward and remember only backward. Nothing is relived, only just remembered and that incompletely. And life isn’t simple like a movie story, there is too much to remember. 

“And all that you forget, it’s gone as if it had never been. Instead of crying you might as well laugh.”

And finally I think this quote sums up the novel succinctly:

Throwing off the shackles of the past.

15 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon – The Gravedigger’s Daughter

  1. I’ve yet to read anything by JCO. I have an ARC of one of her books (The Falls, perhaps) lurking somewhere around here, but haven’t been inspired. Do you have a favorite?


  2. Gautami, I hope you find it sometime.
    Les, I did enjoy The Falls – it was the first one I read, but I liked Middle Age better. I also have Blonde to read sometime as well. It’s a fictionalised life of Marilyn Monroe. They’re all long books so they take a while to read and then I need a change.


  3. I just finished The Gravedigger’s Daughter and really enjoyed it. The ending was different – not predictable for me. I will be curious to know what you think of it.

    Happy Reading!


  4. I seem to have missed this somehow. A number of people are reading it and it has missed my radar completely. Having said that, I have not read anything by Oates, which is really a terribly admission to make. Is she a writer you think I ought to move to the top of the pile? I trust your judgement.


  5. I have only had the opportunity to read The Falls by this author so far, a book I really enjoyed–but only after the fact. It was one of those novels that I wasn’t sure I liked while I was reading it–enough, at least, to finish the book. But once I started thinking about the book after I read it, organizing my thoughts about it, I could really appreciate it all the more. I’ve been meaning to read more by Joyce Carol Oates and this particular book is one that especially has caught my attention because of the subject matter and setting. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the book so far!


  6. Jill, I haven’t had time today to finish the book – I’ll write more in a few days.

    Ann, oh what a responsibility! I wouldn’t move her to the top of your pile until you’ve had a look at one of her books. I read The Falls in 2006 before I had my blog. I noted at the time that it was good, but a bit too long. I was attracted to it initially as it starts off with Ariah’s honeymoon at Niagara Falls – a place I’d like to visit. The beginning was good but I remember I thought it drifted off in the middle a bit, which is why I thought it was too long. I agree with Literary Feline that I appreciated it more after I’d finished reading it. I next read Middle Age, which I thought was better if again a bit too long. The Tattoed Girl is good, but horrible in parts, with lurid descriptions of violence and dirt. I don’t recommend that unless you have a strong stomach. I gave up on The Female of the Species – not to my liking at all! Solstice was OK, although the main characters are irritating and it was a bit depressing. Overall, I’d say borrow one from the library and see what you think.

    Literary Feline, I know just what you mean about The Falls. I thought it was great at first, then felt a bit cool about it and after finishing the book it does stand out in my mind as a good read. The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a book that certainly grabs my attention and makes me think!


  7. Like Les, I have note read any of Joyce Carol Oates books. I know one of them was (Mulvaneys?) was an Oprah pick. I think THE FALLS sounds like something I might try. Also, BLONDE. I don’t think that I will start with this one.

    Also, thanks for your kind words on my blog, Margaret. No, I am not going to disappear entirely. Just not be around as much. However, I will still be commenting occasionally. 🙂


  8. I haven’t read any of JCO books either, but I’ve hear a lot about them. She is definitely someone I intend to read. This books sounds very interesting and I look forward to your full review in the coming days. I’m reading Out Stealing Horses today by Per Petterson and so far I’m enjoying it. Enjoy your Sunday!


  9. Really enticing review – and I really love that quote. This sounds like just the sort of book I’d love, but I think it will have to stay on the wishlost for now – the pile is just too high – but definitely one for later. Thanks, Margaret.


  10. I’ve always had mixed emotions about JCO’s work. I think she’s a wonderful writer, but many things about her stories bother me – especially, as you point out, her male characters. They’re usually so unsympathetic, you can’t really understand how the women in her books are ever drawn to them. Haven’t read Gravedigger’s Daughter yet, but it’s definitely on my list.


  11. I read that book a while ago and wrote a review of it for my blog. You are right that it takes unexpected turns. It’s a book that you continue to think about long after it’s over. I like Joyce Carol Oates and have read several of her books. It will be interesting to see what you think once you are finished. I thought it was a good book, although like you say very depressing.


  12. I’ve just recently discovered JCO’s work myself and I am finding that a lot of it is extremely compelling yet also very disturbing at the same time. She really makes you think about what you’re reading, which I like. I plan on looking for more of her books. This one sounds intriguing!


  13. This is the second review of an Oates book that I’ve read today. I think all of her books are pretty much dark. I’ve heard some of her books described as downright disturbing. I have a couple of her books that I’ve never gotten around to reading. I really need to give her a try. However, I think I should probably wait until I’m in a really good mood and away from all sharp objects. 🙂


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