Book reviews

I’ve read several novels by Joyce Carol Oates previously but didn’t particularly connect with the stories, so started Cardiff, by the Sea with the intention of reading a few pages then discarding the book if I didn’t like it. Happily I loved each of the four short stories that make up this collection.

The collection began with the title story Cardiff, by the Sea, which was a story of suspense.

The main character, Clare, unexpectedly inherited a property from a grandmother she didn’t know existed. She had been adopted as a toddler and knew nothing about her life prior to being adopted so when she received a phone call from a Maine lawyer telling her she had two great aunts and an uncle living in Maine, she was keen to meet her family.

On arrival, Clare met a pair of squabbling, fusspot old maids who were reluctant to tell her anything about her parents but on searching newspaper archives, she learned that her mother, older sister and brother had been killed by her father, who had then killed himself. A small child at the time, Clare had been hiding inside a kitchen cupboard when the murder-suicide took place in the family home.

As Clare learned more about her past and visited her former home, long-forgotten memories returned raising doubts about what had actually happened.

Cardiff, by the Sea had an ambiguous ending which suited the uneasy tone of the story. I would have preferred a definite ending but think the author made the right choice of ending since I have continued to wonder about the events, whereas if the story’s ending had been clear cut I would probably have forgotten it by now.

Miao Dao was the story of a girl on the verge of puberty who was being tormented by boys from her class at school. Her parents had recently separated and her mother was seeing a man who Mia sensed was also a predator.

Mia’s story was entwined with that of the feral cats living near her home. When their habitat was destroyed Mia adopted a tiny white kitten, whom she named Miao Dao. The kitten became Mia’s fiercest protector as she entered her teenage years.

Miao Dao brought back unpleasant memories of being Mia’s age and trying to avoid similar attention from boys. I imagine most women have had similar experiences but I still felt a surge of anger when I remembered a particular event that I hadn’t known how to deal with at the time.

Phantomwise: 1972 also left me feeling angry. Alyce was a brilliant young poet who fell pregnant after having a secret affair with one of her instructors. At around the same time, she became friends with a much-older and very successful professor, Roland B, a successful poet. Alyce became indispensable to Roland B, who employed her to archive his works. Later, when Roland B realised Alyce was pregnant he offered to marry her, making her former instructor jealous.

I was angry with Roland B for leaning so heavily on Alyce, was angry with her former instructor and Roland B for their selfishness in using her talent for their own gain, but most of all I was angry with Alyce for giving up so easily on herself and her own work in order to serve these two unworthy men.

The last story in the collection, The Surviving Child was also the shortest. This was the story of Elisabeth, who had married an older, rich, controlling man whose first wife, a renowned poet, had killed herself and their daughter while sparing their son. As the story continued Elisabeth became more and more intrigued by her predecessor’s life and death.

The four stories in this collection were well suited to each other. Each had a female heroine and a suspenseful, uneasy atmosphere. Men in plain sight were the enemy, the predators, the bullies and the oppressors of women. The female victims were more different to each other in that some had no way to escape their situations, while others found ways to fight back against their tormentors and win.

I’m already looking forward to reading something else by Joyce Carol Oates.

Comments on: "Cardiff, by the Sea by Joyce Carol Oates" (8)

  1. I was going to say that I’ve read several of Oates’ books but on investigation, I’m not sure that I have. Hers is a name I’ve known for years but seemingly have confused with another writer. (I’m wondering if that might be Carol Shields.) Anyway, this sounds a promising collection. I’ve become increasingly fond of short stories in recent years, particularly if there is a theme which links the collection.

  2. Great review! I’ve never even read any Joyce Carol Oates. I don’t know if she would be my kind of thing or not. I’m glad you had a good experience with this book!

  3. I like short stories better and better, too. Being able to enjoy them without having to commit as much time and attention as to a book suits my available reading time, too.
    Oates seems to be a favourite author of a great many readers so perhaps her name is known to you anyway. I always get Sebastian Faulks and someone else (I forget whose) books muddled up too, they write the same sort of books.

  4. Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd are permanently muddled for me!

  5. I don’t know if Oates would be to your taste or not, but I would be interested to know your opinion of her books if you ever decide to read one!

  6. I think it might be Faulks and John Banville who confuse me 🙂

  7. I’ve only read one story from Oates – a novella called Jack of Spades – and unfortunately I really didn’t like it, to the extent it’s put me off reading more of her stuff. A pity since she often sounds interesting, like in this collection. Maybe one day I’ll get over my antipathy and try her again…

  8. I didn’t like Jack of Spades either and Cardiff by the Sea was me giving Oates one last chance. Obviously I’m glad I did, because this collection was good.

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