A blog for everything bookish

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Rape a Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates

So, you may be wondering if I have some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder to return to an author I've read only recently so soon, but when I find a new author I like I like to read their other stuff too, and having read something by Joyce Carol Oates and enjoyed it I really wanted to read something more. So if that's OCD so be it. I liked her work. I wanted more.

So when they had a copy of Rape: A Love Story in my local library I figured 'why not' and so I did and with an intriguing title like that it was an easy grab off the shelf moment (I didn't steal it, just loaned it. Honest). And I wasn't disappointed. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one. Well I think so anyway.

Rape: A Love Story follows the story of Teena Maguire, a single mother, slim, young, attractive, sexy if you like, and her 12 year old daughter Bethel and the 4th of July night when Teena decides to walk through the park to get home, rather than take the long way around. It's a nice night. They've been to a party. It's late. The decision is made.

In the park they run in to a gang of lads who have also been partying. Drunk, high on drugs, they drag Teena and her daughter into a disused boat house. They then gang rape Teena and beat her daughter who, fortunately, is too young to take their interest and instead merely has to listen to her mother being repeatedly raped and beaten while she hides behind some disused boats. When the boys have finished they leave Teena for dead.

And then the story starts. Because in spite of the evidence, in spite of her injuries and the testimony of her daughter, many of the townspeople turn against Teena. Teena the tart. Teena who dresses too provocatively. Teena who was asking for it, who wasn't raped but who was only assaulted when a deal to prostitute herself and her daughter went bad.

And this is the uncomfortable part of the story, because through her delicate, beautiful prose Oates leads us into the minds of a town torn apart by this terrible crime. Into the minds of the rapists whose only regrets are that they didn't kill Teena and her daughter, that they left them alive in order to identify them. Into the minds of the parents of the boys who raped Teena who don't want to believe their sons did this terrible thing, who also maybe know that they did but will do anything to stop their sons' lives being destroyed by terrible, expendible Teena, that floozy woman who is trying to ruin their sons' lives.

Into the minds of Teena and Bethel, especially Bethel, whose childhood ended in that park. Who lost a mother and instead...found love?

Because there are two sides to this story, two sides to the title in fact. This is Rape / A Love Story. And the love story is Bethel's. Bethel falls quietly in love with her rescuer, the police officer who was first on the scene, the strange, enigmatic Officer Dromoor. Not that she ever mentions how she feels.

As the court case begins, and the families of the rapists collectively hire a shark lawyer who twists the events to make them sound innocent, and make Teena sound guilty, Teena withdraws into depression. She refuses to take part in the case, in spite of her terrible injuries, the fact that she only just survived, in spite of her attackers continuing to threaten and harass her, she is portrayed as the villain. And at this point she walks away.

And then her attackers start to go missing, one by one. The first one is openly killed by Dromoor, apparently in defence of another after Teena's ex-boyfriend was attacked in a pub car park. Then two others go missing. Then another appears to commit suicide. The remainder confess. And Bethel knows why. The town moves on.

Rape: A Love Story is a difficult read. It reminded me of a time when I was a much younger woman and I first saw the movie The Accused and felt horrified that beyond the terrible experience of rape was an even worse experience. That after the violence and violation comes a further violation - the trial, in which a woman's whole character, her appearance, her behaviour is measured as justifiable reason for rape. And I can understand how women can choose to turn away from that. Having suffered a terrible, dehumanising assault, to then suffer the psychological damage of being subjected to accusations that the crime had been caused by you, because your skirt was too short, you dressed to provocatively, you 'came on' to someone, you lead them on, you asked for it. Well I can see how in some ways that can be worse.

And this book confronts that fact. That people can be faced with a terrible truth, that terrible violence can be done to a person and it is still preferable to think that the attacker is somehow the victim, the innocent one. Oates, with her beautiful prose, is unflinching in her approach to this subject, forcing us to see the victim, forcing us to see into the minds of the attackers. It is a short, but breathless book and one well worth reading.

If I had one criticism of this book, it would be that it felt rather rushed. And I would have liked to have understood Teena more, but then her very withdrawal is perhaps the thing that brought home how terrible the crime against her had been.

A terrible reminder of the soul destroying, unjustifiable crime that is rape. Please spare a moment to think of the many victims worldwide, and if you can spare a few pennies perhaps make a donation to one of the charities listed below.

Rape: A Love Story receives a stunned 9/10 Biis.

Joyce Carol Oates, you are my hero.

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