Magazine article The Spectator

Growing Up through Grief

Magazine article The Spectator

Growing Up through Grief

Article excerpt

MOTHER , MISSING by Joyce Carol Oates Fourth Estate, £17.99, pp. 434, ISBN 0007207956 . £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

THE FINAL REMINDER by Lydia Flem Souvenir, £9.99, pp. 119, ISBN 0285637347 . £7.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

I'd like to defend Joyce Carol Oates -- she's had so many rotten reviews of this, her latest novel. Reviewers, I reason, must get tired of a writer who publishes a novel a year (Mother, Missing is Oates's 44th) and seek something snide to say like 'time to slow down' (the Guardian) or ask, like Patrick Ness in the Daily Telegraph, how this esteemed author can produce 'a novel of such careless mediocrity?' But, alas, I think Ness is right and the best I can do is to say that I found the autobiographical origin of the book more interesting than the novel itself, raising questions about where fiction and memoir blend.

Mother, Missing is about a daughter's grief for her widowed mother whom she finds stabbed to death in the garage of the suburban family home in New York State.

The novel's narrated by 32-year-old Nikki Eaton. With her punk hair style and her married lover she's depicted as crassly immature. What follows is an uneasy moral record of how, through the mourning process, Nikki belatedly grows up.

The murder of Nikki's mother, Gwen, allows Oates to dramatise the shock of a parent's death but is somewhat incidental -- though it brings on board a useful romantic detective -- for the murderer is rapidly caught. Perhaps the main problem with the novel is that the mother whom Nikki and her older sister Clare miss is so unremittingly good. Gwen Eaton is the perfect housewife, knitting, sewing, baking bread, concerned with church, charity and community. You could sum up her moral code as Be Nice! Although Nikki discovers, inevitably, that Mom has a few less than nice secrets, they're no big deal.

Nikki spends a year going back to live in the family house, trying to be as nice as Mom, baking bread and telling kind lies to make people feel better. She's only set free -- morally improved and matured --- when Lucille (a distant cousin who's been around and so can tell it like is) turns up to tell her that 'missing your Mom can be a place to hide, see? …

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