Wednesday, November 14, 2007

the last book I read

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates.

It's the morning after Ariah Littrell's wedding night, and she's in the bridal suite of a hotel in Niagara Falls. Unfortunately there's a small fly in the ointment of her marital bliss, and it's this: her new husband Gilbert, tormented with guilt at his repressed homosexuality, rose bright and early without waking his bride, dressed hastily and strode puposefully out of the hotel, made his way to Goat Island and threw himself over the barrier into the Horseshoe Falls.

Ariah becomes something of a local celebrity as she waits for her husband's body to emerge from the whirlpools and rapids below the Falls (which eventually it does). During this time she catches the eye of Dirk Burnaby, an eminent local lawyer. After a scandalously short courtship they are married, and have children. Dirk becomes heavily involved with a case brought by a woman from the poor industrial district of Niagara Falls who claims that dumping of toxic waste by local chemical firms has affected the health of her children, including causing the death of her daughter from leukaemia. As the case reveals a complex web of secrets and vested interests across the local community, Dirk gradually becomes alienated from his former friends and colleagues and, following the dismissal of the case, dies in dubious circumstances after his car leaves the road and crashes into the Niagara River.

The third section of the book follows, in a much less linear way, the lives of Ariah and Dirk's three children Chandler, Royall and Juliet as they grow up in the shadow of their father's disgrace and death. Eventually a series of successful lawsuits brought in the wake of Dirk's pioneering work years before redeems his reputation and brings the family back together.

A few minor criticisms can be made: Ariah's transition from blushing virgin on her wedding night to sensual wife during the halcyon early days of her marriage to Dirk to icy widow and matriarch after his death comes without much in the way of explanatory context to make it convincing or elicit much sympathy, Royall's one-off sexual encounter in a graveyard with the mysterious woman in black (in reality the original plaintiff in his father's final case) reads like it's been parachuted in from a completely different novel, and the belated explanation of the circumstances of Dirk's death is just a little too neat. An un-plot-related criticism: my paperback edition (bought for a bargain £1.50 in the Mind charity shop on Cotham Hill) is surprisingly badly proofread for a novel by a major author; quite a few fairly elementary spelling mistakes, inconsistent spellings of place-names and character names, etc.

Aside from that it's highly recommended, the muted roar of the falls providing a haunting backdrop which exerts a powerful draw on all the characters. A considerable amount of the material for the novel is based on real historical events, including the scandalous Love Canal incident (the basis for Dirk Burnaby's abortive lawsuit) and, of course, the falls' well-deserved reputation as a suicide spot. Some interesting pictures (like the one on the right) can be found of the five-month period in 1969 when the American Falls (the smaller of the two major cataracts) were "dewatered" for some major geological studies to be done. During this time several bodies were found, including the body of a young woman lodged head-first into the shattered rock at the bottom of the falls. Now that really must have smarted.

The Falls won the Prix Femina √Čtranger in 2005 - contrary to what you might assume from the name of the prize it's open to writers of both sexes. Taking a look at the list of previous winners I see that this is actually the second winner that I've reviewed on this blog - the first being Alison Lurie's The Truth About Lorin Jones which won in 1989. I've also read the winners of the prize from 1988, 1992 and 1993, all of which I can recommend unreservedly.

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