Joyce Carol Oates’ novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a macabre and heart-wrenching tale of one family’s struggles with poverty, violence, and mental illness. Oates expertly weaves together the stories of the family members, expertly developing each character and their unique relationship to the others.
The center of the novel is Rebekah, the gravedigger’s daughter, who is a witness to the world’s ugliness but also its potential for beauty. Rebekah’s mother, Lelia, is a deeply damaged woman who is haunted by her abusive childhood and her abusive husband. Lelia’s mental illness manifests itself in erratic and violent behavior, and she is ultimately institutionalized.
Rebekah’s father, Abel, is a gentle and kind man who loves his wife and daughter deeply. However, he is unable to protect them from the violence and poverty that surrounds them. Abel turns to alcohol to numb the pain of his difficult life, and his drinking leads to his untimely death.
The novel follows Rebekah as she grows up and tries to make sense of the tragedy and trauma that has marked her life. She is a deeply compassionate and empathetic woman, and she uses her writing to try to make sense of the world around her. The novel is a moving and powerful exploration of the human capacity for love and forgiveness, even in the face of great darkness.
I enjoyed the atmospheric descriptions of upstate New York, which Oates captures so well. I also loved the characters in the book, especially the protagonist, Reeve. She’s a complex and fascinating woman, who has been through a lot in her life. The story is well-written and engaging, and I couldn’t put it down.