Book Reviews

The Sacrifice by Joyce Carol Oates

Everything is designed to impress: the double-barrelled name, the prominent endorsement of Joyce Carol Oates as “New York Times bestselling author” and Pulitzer Prize nominee (shortlisted again in 2015), together with her other achievements and credentials such as Professor of Humanities at Princeton University. For any who missed the fanfare, The Sacrifice by Joyce Carol Oates includes a comprehensive list on the opening pages of the 40 novels she has published since 1964. Her Wikipedia entry lists her “best books” in order, they say, to help the desperate reader work out where to start. This is an author who has been writing for a long time, who seems to have a lot to say, and who doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.

The author’s’ reputation piqued my interest, along with the fact we hold over 25 of her titles at SMSA Library. But I’m sorry to say after reading The Sacrifice I remain unimpressed. Oates seems like a bit of an imposter. Yet her book has merit and I can’t say, “Don’t read it.”

The novel opens in Pascayne, New Jersey (a fictitious town) with a distraught African-American mother searching for her teenage daughter Sybilla. The girl is later found maimed and bleeding and claims to have been raped, bashed and left for dead by a carload of white police. The way Oates goes on and on about the crime details and its aftermath made me wish the girl had just died in the first place. Surely this is not the author’s intention?

With a sudden twist, two black conmen – one a churchman and the other a lawyer – take charge of Sybilla and her mother Ednetta to stir up “black racism” over the incident and make a pot of money for themselves in the process.

Critics freely state that Oates based The Sacrifice on the anti-white race-based hoax committed by the Reverend Al Sharpton and Tawana Frawley in the 1980s. However, Oates doesn’t reveal this source of her story until the final line of the “Afterword” – and then she merely names the 1988 New York case, avoiding names and details. (On the other hand, her random inclusion of famous – or notorious? – African-American figures such as Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson seems a clumsy feint at realism.) The covert exploitation of such real-life drama appears to indicate an author desperate for subject-matter and determined never to give up writing.

The story attempts to depict Sybilla and her mother as strong yet portrays them as weak, in one of the book’s many undeveloped contradictions. Sybilla and Ednetta take little or no positive action throughout. The facts are never clear – or cleared up – in one of the book’s further failings. And what happens in the end to Sybilla, to her mother, to the black-skinned shysters? This novel isn’t journalism, and in failing to explore and resolve the issues it raises, its characters’ actions and its various plot strands, it seems to fail at the artistic level as well.

A minor high point for me, perhaps, was when Sybilla’s cousin Martine locates her missing friend hiding out at Grandma Tice’s place and clambers through the window to join her friend. At last, some action! What will Grandma do when she catches the girls together? Or Ednetta? A great little opportunity for some drama – but nothing happens. The reader remains unrewarded.

The “sacrifice” of Sybilla to the interests of others gives the book its apparently strong, all-embracing title. Yet the reader ends up despising all the black characters, and all the women. The fake rape accusation against a young white policeman finally creates sympathy for him only. Is this the only “sacrifice” that matters? Is his vindication the ultimate aim of The Sacrifice, despite its pretensions to be a story about racism and African-Americans? The novel purports to speak for all its characters, especially the major African-American players, and Oates has received acclamation in reviews for giving each of them a “voice” – yet she creates little sympathy for them.

Jane Austen might have started the trend of employing thematic concepts for titles in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, but enough theme-play is enough. Oates tends to thump the reader over the head with the “sacrifice” theme until the title loses its value, becoming little more than an academic affectation from a clever English literature professor.

The novel is a quick read, though due to its academically trendy style not an easy one in terms of working out who’s talking or what’s happening at any point. Or when one keeps tripping over the (annoying) (trendy) (and quite unnecessary) brackets – like those. This is Professor Oates at play.

The book has received glowing reviews from some quarters: “Gripping and powerful … examination of racism,” effuses the Guardian’s Rose Tremain, for example. But in a much more insightful and ultimately scathing review in the New York Times, Roxan Gay winds up: “Alas, Oates handles critical issues so irresponsibly, with so little empathy as to make the ambiguity and mess of reality ever so soothing.”

I remember thinking: Oates won’t win the Pulitzer Prize if that New York Times reviewer is on the panel. Well, the latest prizes have been announced, and she hasn’t. Though who knows? If Oates keeps pumping out novels like The Sacrifice that still seem to convince and entertain many people, one day she just might.


The Sacrifice by Joyce Carol Oates


Derek Hornsey
SMSA Casual Library Officer

The Sacrifice by Joyce Carol Oates

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