May 15, 2016

The Gravedigger’s Daughter – Joyce Carol Oates

It was published in 2007. After the escape of Nazi Germany, the Schwart family makes its journey across the Atlantic towards the American territory. And it is during this expedition that Rebecca Schwart comes into this world, a creature that joins the family not like the joy of a new descendent but as the straw that breaks the camel’s back, due to the load of difficulties in which is immersed this group of Jews who aspires to become immigrants of the United States.

Having reached the new continent, the father, a former school teacher is forced by circumstances to take the position of the town gravedigger, taking his entire family to an old shack built of stone within the domains of the cemetery.

My score:

The drastic change of life, the new culture they have to deal with, the extreme poverty and discrimination from local people, get the whole family sunk into despair and hostility. Making all members take extreme measures in order to survive in a foreign country.

Consequently, Rebecca far from being the beloved daughter of her parents and brothers she grows in an adverse, full of scarcity and heartbreaking environment, experiencing one of the worst tragedies to which a human being can endure; the loss of a loved one in the most atrocious circumstances. Forced to run away from home she spends her teenage years under the tutelage of a school teacher, who took her in until the moment Rebecca decides to leave forever and start a new life on her own.

Once grown up her circumstances don’t get any better, she’s still struggling in a sea of vicissitudes caused by the man she falls in love with, bringing her down to a state uncertainty, humiliation and coldness. Rebecca then decides to claim her freedom by assuming a new identity and an existence that will lead her to new directions she’d never imagined before.

The story narrates in great detail Rebecca’s life and background in a very straight and crude way. In this book there are no roses or touching love scenes, for tenderness and candor rarely ever make appearance in this novella. The scenes move for their excessive realism, for the intense suffering and above all the indiference that several characters profess to the protagonist.

The book cover is a bit confusing because, in my opinion, it does not completely fit the play’s central character; in fact I think it reflects a child that resembles nothing to Rebecca at all. In the picture we see a well taken cared and well-dressed girl who seems to enjoy the love and protection from her parents, while in the book we find a victim of domestic abuse deeply traumatized by adverse events that do not reflect the image shown on the book cover.

The argument per se is quite interesting and it reveals details of the flight of the Jews in the early twentieth century, and the reality that had to deal once they arrived to the American continent. The author makes no effort to soften or minimize the tragic scenes of the play, she rather tends to expose the seriousness of the facts in its entirety, i.e. in her style there is no room for sentimentality or schmaltz that usually adorn literary works, and the kind the reader might wrongly expect after watching the book wrap. The fact that the author calls a spade a spade does not shock me, though this type of prose is less frequent and certainly unexpected judging from the book's introduction.

The weak aspect of the work, to my mind, is in the extension of each scene, this is definitely a long book (over 600 pages), and because of this the reader gets stuck with regular frequency, which prevents the task from flowing with the right rhythm, leaving the reader at the mercy of boredom and tedium. I stopped reading this book several times, I actually thought I was not going to finish it. I believe the work could have been more concise and light, it undoubtedly would have hooked a larger number of followers.

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