Recently I read two novels in quick succession:
‘The Senator’s Wife’ (2008) by Sue Miller
‘The Gravedigger’s Daughter’ (2007) by Joyce Carol Oates
As different as they are in style, tone, and setting, they have this in common with all good novels: they lure me with the promise of story; they suck me in with the development of strong character; and, most of all, they hypnotize me with the ongoing melody of their highly individual voice.
Here’s Delia, the senator’s wife: ‘She thought how her life seemed to have been enlarged suddenly – peopled, complicated, full of duties and chores and obligations. And pleasures. Exactly the things, she thought, that keep you alive.’
Since she published ‘The Good Mother’ in 1986, Sue Miller has produced a series of eight novels about ordinary people leading ordinary lives. She is a highly talented purveyor of realist fiction, and I know she will take me deep into the lives of her characters without the addition of thrill, chill, mystery or madness. She’s full of surprises, though. I tried very hard to guess the outcome of this latest novel and didn’t even come close.
And here’s the voice of Rebecca, the gravedigger’s daughter: ‘Hide most things you know. Like you would hide any weakness. Because it is a weakness to know too much among others who know too little.’
Joyce Carol Oates has published 36 novels since 1964, and I always approach her stories as I would a tub of very hot water: first the big toe, then the foot, then step in gingerly and wait for the heat to spread. Oates’ world is that of the ‘under’ – where violence and brutality are always just beneath the surface and the survivor is pushed, pulled, and dragged towards a fate that may hide but does not heal the underlying damage.
I am an admiring and trusting reader of both these novelists. I know that they will reveal as much as I need to know, and allow me the challenge of untangling and interpreting the rest.