- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

“The Gravedigger’s Daughter” is Joyce Carol Oates’ 36th novel, but this indefatigable writer seems to be going from strength to strength, as evidenced by her vituosity here.

This is the story of Rebecca Schwart, from her birth on a streamer bound for New York to her childhood in Milburn, to her failed marriage to Niles Tignor and finally, to her change of identity to Hazel Jones. But revolving around this tale is the larger story of Jewish immigrants who escaped Nazi Germany to make lives for themselves in America. This one is not about the happy stories that we come across every now and then; rather it is a story of dashed hopes and murderous intrigue.

The novel begins in Chautauqua Falls with Rebecca returning home after a hard day’s work at Niagara Tubing. Around the canal towpath, she is accosted by a stranger — the cloying Dr. Byron Hendricks, who mistakes her for another woman, Hazel Jones. Rebecca pushes him away, but this meeting and the promise of a legacy for the enigmatic Hazel stay with her. Little is she aware that this name would come to define her future.

Rebecca’s father, Jacob Schwart, was a math teacher in Germany who decided to emigrate to America to escape Nazi persecution. But when he, along with his wife Anna, his sons Herschel and Gus and the newly-born daughter Rebecca, moves to Milburn, he realizes that he must settle for the worst because he is not like them. This otherness marks Jacob for life, and is liberally bolstered by the treatment the community metes out on him and his family.

He is made the town’s gravedigger, and the trauma and the humiliation of this make him a hard-hearted, insensitive monster. Rebecca’s trials start right from early childhood when her brothers desert the family in quick succession (Ms. Oates delves into their reasons with touching candor) and her father, in a fit of mad animal rage, kills her mother and himself.

But in the merciless world of Ms. Oates’ fiction, realism is always lurking around the corner and if one expects poetic justice, then one must wait forever. Rebecca’s marriage to the brutal Niles Tignor fails, but it gives her the one constant source of cherishing in her life — her son Niley. After an especially violent episode (in which Ms. Oates renders beautifully a mother’s convoluted worrying for the safety of her son), Rebecca decides to leave Niles and make a new life for herself.

It is then that she heeds the voice of an inner oracle and adopts the name Hazel Jones. Niley becomes Zacharias (“a name from the Bible”) and so begins the final phase in this sprawling saga. The last few chapters herald good tidings for Rebecca. In media tycoon Chet Gallagher she discovers a love she has never known. Rebecca’s life story, in its unceasing twists and turns, keeps you hooked to the very end.

Ms. Oates follows an unconventional technique to stretch the narrative. She takes you into the present — the very tactile present — and then by means of recollections, memories and realizations, she draws out the past — slowly, deliberately, intimately — until you realize that without informing you of anything by way of facts, the writer has set you up firmly in the world of Rebecca Schwart. Rebecca becomes so real that you can almost imagine her springing to life from within the folds of the book.

So bare is Ms. Oates’ prose, so precise in its clinical beauty, that when she does relent and give space to her characters to create a scene of filial bonding here, of mind-numbing violence there, the effect is heart-breaking. This book is a moving ode to the difficult choices people make in their lives, some of which leave no room for escape.

Vikram Johri is a freelance writer in New Delhi.

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