A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates – review

Is Joyce Carol Oates's memoir of bereavement too raw?

When Raymond Smith, husband of prolific author Joyce Carol Oates, died suddenly in February 2008 after a short illness, a friend commented: "Knowing how you write, you may already be completing the first of many novels that will help you explore what you've been experiencing." Oates responded by "shaking with cold, with a kind of choked fury".

An interesting reaction, since, though she hasn't fictionalise her grief, she has published a 417-page account of it. The exchange reveals much: first, people care for this "Wonder Woman of American letters" as friend and writer; second, misery unsettles identities and at this point Oates, author of more than 50 novels, does not see herself primarily as a novelist; third, she is honest enough sometimes to paint a quite unattractive self-portrait.

A Widow's Story describes in raw detail the six months following Ray's death. Oates begins her widowed existence with a crippling sense of loneliness, experiencing for the first time the misery of insomnia and the horror of living alone. Her numerous dark novels amplifying the brutal, violent and savage aspects of human life must have emerged entirely from their author's imagination, for till this time her personal life had been "as measured and decorous as Laura Ashley wallpaper". Ray was the first and last man for her, and in the 48 years of their marriage they rarely spent a night apart. He read none of her novels and she read only a little of one he'd started to write before they married – but otherwise they shared almost everything. Each shielded the other from the few small nastinesses of existence as they lived and entertained in their elegant glass house (no blinds or shutters) in two lovely acres near Princeton. Ray, the good husband, looked after his famous wife by seeing to the car, the garden, the house and finances, and, when she returned from readings, preparing meals and leaving flowers on her desk. Glimpses of this enchanted life emerge, and with its fame, fortune, plentiful society, mutual care and intellectual companionship, it's surely as idyllic a life as a literary woman could achieve.

So nothing prepared Oates for her loss. Perhaps nothing could have done. But the contrast between this sheltered existence and the free-fall following Ray's death, when every glass pane bred ghosts, is terrible indeed. The memoir catches the maladroit, self-absorbed facets of the acutely miserable. Oates is horrified at being by herself, eating by herself and shopping alone, when a torn bag spills groceries on the road and no one is there to help. The destabilised woman becomes aware of her several selves, especially the contrasting ones of celebrity – the professional Joyce Carol Oates who continues to perform her public persona – and the grieving Mrs Smith who dissolves into a "damp tissue" or uses her dark imagination to embody the lure of suicide as a staring basilisk at the edge of consciousness. Always she clutches at the talismanic word "widow" as if only by embracing it can she stave off disintegration.

There are some wise perceptions: that one survives only through others, that anger is a good antidote to grief, that at the centre of grief "there are no words". And some telling details. When she rushed to the hospital to see Ray before his death, she parked poorly and returned to find a note on the car window, "Learn to park stupid bitch". After Ray died, their bed became a nest of quilts, manuscripts and galley proofs, from which the solitary, once fastidious woman watched junky late-night television. Surrounded by fans and friends, she received mountains of flowers and plants, fruit and delicate foods in velvet sympathy ribbons; she stuffed them all unopened into rubbish bins.

The leitmotif throughout is fear of what the house might hold, some hint that her and Ray's intimacy might have blinded her to an unknown side of him. Finally she braced herself to read his unfinished novel. It concerned a priest struggling to choose between his vocation and the saving of a troubled female poet. Did the real Ray surrender his creativity to "save" or at least care for a more brilliant wife? Oates doesn't probe the matter or investigate her own needy dependence. Life alone she believes untenable; she cannot bear being "an unloved woman no longer young". Fortunately, six months after Ray's death, she met a man she would shortly marry, moving from the glass house and its ghosts. The meeting is coyly mentioned on the final pages.

This is a relentless and exhausting book, saturated by amorphous pain. In the 18th century women writers, then just entering literature, were mocked for trying to express extreme emotions through the typography of dashes, italics, exclamation marks and abruptly empty pages; the 21st century is more sympathetic to these habits, used to the full here. They give the work an unedited, unmediated quality. A Widow's Story forms part of a growing subgenre of bereavement memoir including most recently Joan Didion's bestselling The Year of Magical Thinking and Antonia Fraser's Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter. Neither of these has such an unfinished tone, such little reticence. For many readers this may be its strength, its comfort; others perhaps might be more moved by a shorter, more crafted, more incisive book.

Janet Todd's Death & the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle is published by Profile.


Janet Todd

The GuardianTramp

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