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.