Book Review: A Widow's Story - A Memoir

By Peter Wells

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A Widow's Story - A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates
HarperCollins $39.99

Cover of A Widow's Story - A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates. Photo / Supplied
Cover of A Widow's Story - A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates. Photo / Supplied

When anyone precious dies, most people attempt to keep their memory alive. This can be done by using their name a lot. Valuing the things they once touched. Or even wore. (I once heard of a man who took to wearing his dead wife's clothes to the local bowling club. His friends were understanding.) Grief makes people mad, or curiously sane.

Joyce Carol Oates faces widowhood in this memoir. Her husband Ray dies suddenly, through a form of medical incompetence. Oates, with the sensibility of a startled racehorse, is bolting through a landscape struck with lightning. She never stops.

I have always liked Oates' writing. It is vivid, emotional and never lacks punch. Even in person she is Gothic - tall and thin, like a twisted pine tree. This book is the chronicle of her grief. In many ways it is a good read. This is because she brings to the narrative her own formidable skills as a writer. But in many other ways, she is like any ordinary individual unbalanced by a horrible surprise.

She and Ray had no children. They appeared to live relatively isolated from their respective families. Both lived in a lively intellectual milieu. But what Oates experiences is a kind of terrifying freefall. And even the most ordinary defences are taken away from her. (She asks a nurse to recommend a funeral parlour within hours of her husband's death. The nurse recommends the Yellow Pages.) She is as impractical as a turtle turned on its back. But her writer's mind, over-vivid, self-consumed, agonising, registers every nuance.

The book, given all this, is curiously readable, which is probably due to Oates' novelistic skills. She is, after all, the author (as she tells us) of a staggering 115 books, including 55 novels. One can be too prolific. In some ways she needed to write this book a little later in her grief process. It seems to have been started within days of her husband's death. There is no recollection in tranquillity and I have to admit, by page 227, I began to suffer grief fatigue. (There were almost another 200 pages to go.) But I finished the book. I felt I had to accompany her to the end.

Tennyson once wrote, "Let love grasp grief, lest both be drowned." I thought this memoir was like a threshing of someone desperately trying to fight her way to the surface, all the time carrying a burden beyond words, beyond logic.

The story is well told, over-vivid, at times claustrophobic but always true. My final comment is that Ray her husband seems strangely absent. I had little real idea of what he was like as a human, an individual. It was almost as if he wasn't there. Which, I guess, was the point of the whole book.

Peter Wells is a Hawkes Bay-based writer.

- NZ Herald

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