Reviewed by David Swatling
A young child is abandoned, left for dead, in the mudflats of Black Snake River in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. So begins a haunting tale by one of America’s most prolific writers. I recognized some locations, not only because I grew up in the region but also because Joyce Carol Oates has explored this terrain before – both geographically and psychologically.
Mudwoman is a finely detailed portrait of M.R. Neukirchen, the first woman president of an esteemed Ivy League institution (not unlike Princeton, where Oates teaches.) Before an important academic conference for which M.R. is the keynote speaker, she embarks on an ill-fated drive that propels her on a collision course with a past she has taken great pains to leave behind. Evocative childhood memories intersect with disturbing confrontations in her university life, and as the U.S. unwaveringly marches toward war with Iraq, M.R. lurches helplessly toward a mental breakdown.
“There is a day, an hour. When you understand that the swift-flowing river runs in one direction, and nothing can reverse it.”
The river metaphor serves well to describe both Oates writing style (lush long sentences and a penchant for parentheses) and the story itself, full of unexpected twists and turns, at times a gentle stream, then suddenly an unrelenting flash flood of destruction. She deftly juggles scenes of striking beauty, philosophical dialogue, horrific violence and heartfelt tenderness.
“How do we know what we have failed to see because we have no language to express it, thus cannot know that we have failed to see it.”
Mudwoman may not appeal to fans of plot-driven page-turning psychological thrillers. But at the age of 73, Joyce Carol Oates remains an important and distinctive voice in literary fiction.
You Review: The latest releases, reviewed by ABC customers.
If you’d like to join in and get free books and ABC gift vouchers, see the original post for more details.