The Sacrifice by Joyce Carol Oates review – gripping and powerful

Joyce Carol Oates’s examination of racism has a powerful resonance given recent events in America

In an impressive and prolific writing life, Joyce Carol Oates has shed a distinctive and bitter light on recent American history. Racism, misogyny, poverty, political corruption, bullying and the tyranny of hierarchies are her prime subjects. And of all novelists writing in English now, she is the most adroit at capturing the fusion of real events with invented ones. This fusion finds its most dazzling realisation in her masterpiece, Blonde (2000), which takes the life of Marilyn Monroe and distils through it, like a slowly developing photograph, a gripping historical account of what it was like to be alive and poor in the US in the 1940s and 50s.

Oates seems to be a writer in a hurry. Despite 40 novels published, she clearly yearns to say more. That rush to seize the next subject is apparent from the first lines of her powerful new novel, The Sacrifice, in which Ednetta Frye, the black mother of a missing teenage girl, wanders the streets of a New Jersey town “like a procession of voices” begging for help and information. Ednetta’s lament – “Seen my girl? My baby? My girl S’b’lla – anybody seen her?” – is the opening aria of a story predicated on an unsolved crime that took place in upstate New York in 1988. In her afterword, Oates states that fiction has a duty to give “a shape, an ending and a meaning, unavailable in life”. The shape she gives to this book is like a double helix, turning and turning around the subject of race and, in particular, the race trance still causing moral blindness in many American communities.

Just as in Blonde, Oates was unafraid to portray abusive sex scenes with JFK or to evoke the emotional petrification of Arthur Miller, so, in this new novel, she’s unafraid to inhabit – with the confidence of a writer who believes absolutely in the power of her imagination to take her anywhere she seeks to go – the world of an African American family in Pascayne, a fictional New Jersey town, blighted by poverty and toxic decay.

Skin colour in Pascayne affects everything. While Ednetta Frye is “the dark-warm burnished hue of mahogany”, the neighbour who finds Sybilla – alive but beaten up and “hog-tied” in a derelict food factory – is lighter skinned and thus never thanked by Ednetta. The female police sergeant, Ines Iglesias, sent “as one of them” to question Sybilla, fails in her task because Ednetta mistrusts her as “a light-skinned Hispanic”. The doctor, “Asian, light skin”, attempting a medical examination, is never able to conclude it because of Sybilla’s fear of a man who “looked white”.

This unfinished examination is pivotal to the story’s unfolding. Because of it, the facts surrounding Sybilla’s ordeal remain opaque. Sybilla claims she was assaulted by “white cops”, who scrawled hate slogans on her flesh. But nobody is arrested and no suspect identified, leaving the way clear for the appropriation of Sybilla’s case by the Mudrick twins, a finely realised pair of black charlatans, preacher and lawyer, who smell money and publicity in the promotion of Sybilla as “the black Joan of Arc”. Through press conferences and rallies, in which the Mudricks accuse the police – “Nazi-racist swine” – of multiple rape, a nationwide following is gradually drawn to the slogan: “Justice for Sybilla Frye”.

Pressed into the limelight, Ednetta and Sybilla become passive exhibits in a cynical cavalcade. Presented as righteous victims of white hate, promised “millions of dollars” that they will probably never see, they are the sacrificial lambs of the Mudricks’ greed and desire for fame. Moved from safe house to safe house, while Pascayne and other New Jersey towns erupt in violence, we witness an external chaos mirroring an internal labyrinth of fear. Here is where the real power of this novel lies – in its turbulent centre, where a storm of doubt begins to whirl around the whole, grotesque episode, and where, little by little, a new, fragile outline of the truth begins to emerge.

This outline, and the novel’s resolution, centred on Sybilla’s step-father, Anis Schutt, whose son was long ago shot down in cold blood by white police, beautifully captures the sorrow afflicting so many divided communities in the US and the wider world. It is an entrenched kind of sorrow, with both sides so trapped in prejudice and fear that nothing alters as the years pass. Even the environment in which they might alter is blighted. Following Schutt on his sanitation truck – the only kind of work a black ex-con can expect to get – we see how far the town has fallen into decay. But we also see how, in the hands of a great writer, a gripping story can be torn from the poisonous rubble. Perhaps, at least, there is hope in an act of artistic empathy as powerful as this.

The Sacrifice is published by 4th Estate, £12.99. Click here to buy it for £13.59


Rose Tremain

The GuardianTramp

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