Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: Little Bird Of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates

I had never read a Joyce Carol Oates book before, but a friend was recently hassling me about that, and I figured I really ought to have read someone so prolific and respected, so I got this book and gave her a shot. I'm glad I did! This book would be perfect for a book club. It's got a lot of interesting topics that would be ripe for discussion, and some that would be controversial.

In the mid-1980s, Krista's father is accused of the murder of his mistress, Zoe, but never even arrested. Zoe's estranged husband is also accused, and his son Aaron, a couple of years ahead of Krista in school, also goes through his childhood with this cloud over his head. Krista loves her father and doesn't believe he could have done this, although it does become apparent that other people in town do think it's possible. Krista's mother kicks him out, get a restraining order, her brother Ben won't have anything to do with him, but when he shows up at Krista's high school, she goes with him willingly, even eagerly, which may well prove to be a big mistake. Meanwhile Aaron's dropped out of school and gotten mixed up with a bad crowd. He was already on a downhill slope when his mother moved out but after he found her body, his decline turned into more of a steep spiral. Aaron and Krista will cross paths at a couple of critical points in their lives, two teens burned by accusations and doubt and love.

The book isn't a murder mystery per se, but there is a murder immediately, and we don't know who did it until the end (and I did not like how that plot line was tied up although I was glad it wasn't left hanging.) I don't think the whole book except for the last three chapters being told in flashback was effective. I think it should have just been a book in the 1980s. The very end set 20 years later didn't do it for me at all. But that's easy to ignore as it's such a small part of the book (although it's always a bummer when you don't like the end.)

The book is atmospheric, and the time and place (upstate New York) were very deftly drawn with only a few strokes, but perfectly accurate (with the one quibble that as an adult Krista says she'd never heard of Metallica - that is impossible for someone who grew up in the 1980s especially in a semi-rural public school.) I could really see the outfits and the hairdos, even when they weren't described, because the scenes were set so well. We really got inside Krista's head, to understand her naivete, her wistful hopefulness, her loving devotion to her father, her trust to the end, her wanting to understand even if it meant risking everything. I thought that part of the book was terrific. Then just over halfway through, the narration switches from Krista's first-person, to third-person with Aaron as the focus. It was a bit jarring, and I didn't like when he called himself "Krull" (short for Kruller, his last name) as that seemed a bit farcical. His perspective didn't ring as true. Maybe it was the third-person or that his section was shorter or that I already had a strong idea of who he was through Krista's eyes, but it was hard to shift and I often just didn't buy it. I did get used to it, but I never liked that section much.

I definitely found this book flawed, but the writing was so great and the characters were so three-dimensional, and the situation was so compelling, that it was fairly easy to overlook most of them. To the point that I would recommend the book despite its flaws. Not a perfect book, but a world in which it was easy to become completely lost.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.


Kristen said...

I have some Joyce Carol Oats in my TBR pile but, for some unknown reason, I seem to avoid them. This one sounds like a good one though, so maybe I will read this one first!

Unknown said...

I'm a fan of Joyce Carol Oates and have read several of her books. She tends to be dark, I've wanted to read this book for a while now...it sounds captivating. The change in narration halfway through from first-person to third is a little odd. I can't remember if I remember Oates doing that in a book I read. Hmmmm...But I'm really glad you liked the book overall.

"We Were the Mulvaneys" is a very good book by Oates but also dark.