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Give Me Your Heart

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Despite her vast output, Oates’s fiction has never diluted its sense of drama. In these ten chilling stories, she returns again to a subject that has lurked in the wings of much of her fiction – violence, implicit or overt; often with the lingering undertones of non-consensual sex hanging like pheromones in the air.

In the title story, an embittered middle-aged woman writes a letter to the eminent academic who seduced and then spurned her in her youth. As the letter unfolds, its obsessive detail becomes more disturbing, the woman’s derangement becoming apparent in the details she knows about her ex’s life and beloved granddaughter. We realise that this is no ordinary rebuffed person but a dangerous stalker on a mission. It’s a spine-tingling if mildly unoriginal opener. In Split/Brain a devoted woman returns home unexpectedly from her sick husband’s bedside and has the sense that an intruder is in her home. A palpable suspense builds up as the reader wonders whether she will act on her instinct or pass the point of no return.


Oates’s talent for scrawling the ugly lines of human flaws is in evidence in The First Husband, where she artfully conveys the way doubt, resentment, inadequacy and jealousy seep into and poison the mind. Oates has always had a flair for vivid similes and they are present in abundance in this collection: here, a seething husband savours his private knowledge with grim satisfaction: ‘Smiling to think: like a boa constrictor swallowing its living prey paralyzed by terror, his secret would encompass Valerie’s secret and would, in time, digest it.’


Oates’s mastery of dark matters is so accepted that people sometimes forget she is also a sharp chronicler of the everyday. A real estate salesman’s smile is ‘wide and toothy yet somehow grudging, as if he resented the effort such a smile required’, and ‘when he wasn’t facing Leonard, his sulky mouth retained its fixed smile.’


Nevertheless, it is the black at which Oates excels. In Strip Poker, she revisits a favourite subject, notably the lust a predatory older man feels for an underage girl. The atmosphere is heavy with a grim sense of foreboding. It is these confused female characters Oates portrays so well – while her working-class males are often inarticulate and either idolise, are indifferent to, or abuse women, her female characters are complex. Oates’s victims of sexual threat are rarely paragons of clean living, they are real people with their own burgeoning desires who are often more mature sexually than emotionally, and frequently befuddled by drink. Her depiction of working-class rural life is on par with that of D.H.Lawrence or Faulkner, but her insight into the intricacies of the female mind offers a converse view to that of these classical male authors.


There is not always a clear answer to Oates’s mysteries, and that is illustrated here by Smother, in which the reader is left wondering whether a daughter is seriously psychologically disturbed and has false memory syndrome or whether her mother is in staunch denial. At other times she affords us a glimpse of lives wasted without the comfort of the unfeasibly happy resolution fiction often offers, as in Tetanus, where a young boy on the brink of irreversible delinquency rejects the helping hand held out to him by a kind professional. Still, clean living is no guarantor of happiness either, as we find out from the shift to the latter’s own lonely personal life. In fact tragedy is often the outcome in an Oates story. In The Spill, the picture of arduous farming life painted is as tough as that of Mary Lawson, Patrick Lane or David Vann, and the capacity of stress and overwork to push an individual over the edge is shockingly credible.


Sometimes, the darkness is unbearable. Any parent or relative of a young daughter will find Bleeed difficult. While Oates is never gratuitous, even a brief factual description of this kind of gruesome crime is too much. In Vena Cava, a haunting tale of a brain-damaged war veteran returning home, Oates leavens the horror to come with a rare flash of humour: ‘sag-faced teary women in puff perms to make their small heads appear larger on their bulky bodies in…stretch Orlon pantsuits observed from the rear you could not easily distinguish between those fat asses.’


Oates’s intensity can leave you devastated and drained, and her taste for melodrama leaves chinks that more nuanced authors might fill – I watched The Remains of the Day after reading this, and the tragic restraint and repression of the film of Ishiguro’s novel was a million miles from Oates. Still, the undeniable disturbance her fiction provokes is undoubtedly testament to her immense talent.

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