Tuesday, 21 July 2015

My Sister, My Love - Joyce Carol Oates

If you remember, by any chance, mention of the murder of a small star of what the Americans call Beauty Queen Pageants, JonBenét Ramsey in Colorado some years ago ........ you may recall that this small child was found dead in her own home, the suspects her family, and in the end, no-one ever paid for that crime.  Here Oates has taken that true and dreadful occurrence as a base for her similar fiction-based-on-fact novel; named the child in her novel Bliss Rampike, and made her a very small, very young skating champion.  Like JonBenet, this little girl has a brother.  Like JonBenet, this little girl has two parents.  The story is a wandering one, mostly told from Skyler's (the brother) point of view, but in varying styles, which may confuse if you are not concentrating, but I found it a rather clever way of telling a complicated tale.
Skyler is the first-born in the family; Mummy's "little man", Daddy's "Skyboy", and is leading a lovely life, with loving parents when his sister arrives.  Named Edna Louise after her paternal grandmother, she is only four years old when she shows some skill at ice skating, and is renamed "Bliss".  Skyler is pushed aside - but is that in his head?  Certainly, his sister loves him, and looks on him to help her when she is frightened, when she wets the bed, when Mummy gets cross.  And this is only the start of the siblings problems, for it becomes clear very soon that Mummy drinks - and Mummy takes drugs (the kind that doctors prescribe), and Mummy is going to live her life vicariously through Bliss and her skating.  Daddy?  Well,  Daddy is a go-getter in the work place, he's heading for the top of somewhere or other and he's always staying away from home for "work".  Is work a blonde or a brunette?  Mmmmm - maybe he really is at work?

Both children are soon taking drugs like Mummy.  Bliss to make her sleep, both at night or for the afternoon rest, and also to perk her up so that she skates well; she has to take vitamins; and then there are the injections - apparently to make her bones strong (after all a broken bone for a skater is the finish, isn't it?)  Skyler?  who knows what drugs he takes, just accepts the handful from Mummy.

There are sharp pokes at the American Dream in this book.  As a Mummy, your kids should do well; you should go the right church every Sunday; you should have friends who's husbands are like yours.  Your children should have "play dates", arranged by Mummies, for they are too young to pick friends, especially the ones your parents want/need you to have.  You  need to attend the hairdressers and the beauty salon on a very regular basis, you need to be a brilliant hostess - in fact you need to be a kind of Stepford Wife for real.  And the children?  What they have to suffer is truly dreadful but not because they starve, or have no fresh water, or nowhere to sleep - but the pain for them is as bad, just in a different way.   Well, we know straight away that Bliss is dead, and we have several suspects including Skyler.... but it will be very near the end of the 562 pages that we find out who did the killing.  Between the start and the finish my heart broke for Skyler - Skyler who might be the killer -  and his broken life.

I was just horrified about the way some people live the American Dream and if you think it's not real, just look at the Real Wives of Texas/New Jersey/wherever  somewhere on your TV - it's not for me!    A complicated novel, but with not too many characters.  An eye-opener, a fat read.  I like Oates and her "under the microscope" tales of American life (We were the Mulveneys was another deeply sad but worth reading novel).  I had to concentrate, but I enjoyed the read.