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A tough, nuanced read that raises uncomfortable topics – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Joyce Carol Oates’s A Book of American Martyrs

Published in The Witness

A Book of American MartyrsI must admit this novel was neither easy to read nor to review. Both subject matter and Joyce Carol Oates’s way of handling it can make a reader somewhat queasy, but there is no doubt that its 736 pages (American writers are remarkably keen on having their readers in for the long haul) are a formidable achievement.

The story opens in 1999 in the American midwest, when Luther Dunphy, a fundamentalist Christian and hardline pro-life activist, shoots dead Dr Gus Voorhees and his bodyguard outside the abortion clinic where Voorhees works.

The first part of the book is narrated by Dunphy, and Oates is too skilled a writer to make him a one-dimensional hate figure. You may not like him, or what he stands for, but by the time he is sentenced to death, you have a certain understanding of him. And his execution reminded me forcibly of The Green Mile, the only film I have ever walked out of, unable to stomach the electric chair scene. If nothing else, A Book of American Martyrs makes a compelling argument, if one is needed, for the abolition of the death penalty.

Voorhees, Dunphy’s victim and polar opposite is no saint either. He represents another brand of fanaticism, one that is prepared to sacrifice pretty well anything for his crusading ideals and whose outward calm rationality hides a terrifying ruthlessness. He and Dunphy are the martyrs, seeking their own martyrdom.

However, the main thrust of Oates’s book is the effect of the two deaths on the two families, particularly the wives of the men and their daughters, both entering adolescence at the time of the killings. The stories are told through a variety of voices, ranging from an impersonal third person narrator to first person sections and verbatim transcripts of interviews and trials.

Both the Voorhees and Dunphy families are destroyed, and the latter part of the book deals with Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy as they both, in very different ways, struggle to find their own paths to survival, and to deal with the legacy forced upon them by their fathers. One, who becomes a documentary film maker, may be educated, clever and articulate while the other – an exploited and vicious woman boxer – is barely literate and hardly able to function in society, but their lives are intertwined for ever.

A Book of American Martyrs raises all kinds of uncomfortable topics – religious fundamentalism, the abortion debate, gun crime and the death penalty. It is particularly pertinent at this time, calling up issues that are currently fracturing American society and that of other places as well. The telling is complex and nuanced but, as I said at the outset, it is a tough read. Oates is one of those writers – an ever-expanding list – who are regularly tipped for a Nobel prize, though whether she ever will or ought to win is another matter. But this book should do her chances no harm. – Margaret von Klemperer

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