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A short while ago, I read Joyce Carol Oates' short story collection, "The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares" and was moved by the sheer emotional impact of the stories it contained. This was especially true of the title story, which looked at the impact on a family torn by the disappearance of their daughter. The synopsis of "Daddy Love" suggested a similar impact, given the nature of the story and what I'd recently discovered about the power of Oates' writing.
Dinah and Whit Whitcomb are living happily with their 5 year old son Robbie in Michigan. Until one day at the Mall, Dinah is hit over the head and Robbie is snatched from her. Getting up to chase the van he was bundled into, she is run down by the kidnapper and left for dead. Robbie finds himself first locked in a box and then, when he is released, under the 'care' of Daddy Love.
Daddy Love is not a pleasant person, although he gives the impression of being so to the outside world, preaching at churches as Pastor Cash and being polite to everyone he meets. But when he and Robbie, now renamed Gideon, are alone, things are less pleasant. Daddy Love maintains discipline by locking him back in a restrictive coffin-like box and if his brand of 'love' were properly named, our main character would be called Daddy Rape.
As with much of Oates' writing, the story touches on human fears and the worst of human nature and it's not always comfortable reading. But, also in common with much of Oates' writing, as disturbing as you may find the content of the story, it's so compellingly told that I could not turn away. This is the written equivalent of a horror film that you watch through your hands, not wanting to see the gore, but unable to stop watching.
Oates' writing has two main features that make the reader feel this way. The first is the sheer emotional impact of the writing that makes you feel every situation. The smooth malevolence of Daddy Love seems to ooze from the page and even just reading about someone so disgusting made me feel dirty. The heat of Gideon's rage as he grows older and more rebellious burns from the page like one of his arson attacks and whilst his actions may be understandable in his circumstances, the heat feels feverish as if he were infected by some of the things Daddy Love put him through.
The other feature was the sheer style the story is presented in. The opening chapters repeat early events over and over as the kidnapping occurs. Whilst this felt a little confusing at first, I soon realised that they were the events as recounted by Dinah's mind as it was still reeling from the shock of events. This noticed, I couldn't help but admire the quality of both the thinking and the execution in this part of the novel.
If there was one down side, I felt it was in the ending. It may well have been realistic in a case such as this and may well mirror a real child abduction case, but it didn't seem to quite fit in with much of what had come before. It was still a well written and emotionally expressed section of the novel, but after all that had come before I struggled a little to adjust to the change of pace and direction that resulted.
However, all that has come before was so good that this slightly weaker ending didn't spoil the book, it just took some of the edge away from it. Fans of Joyce Carol Oates' work will certainly enjoy "Daddy Love", as it's well in keeping with her usual style and quality of writing. It may be a little too dark for readers not used to the genre, although those that have read stories of abuse like Anna Paterson's "Anorexic" or the work of Dave Pelzer could be more used to this kind of story and may find this both a realistic and well written example of that story, even as fictional as it is. For those with a Kindle, it's ridiculously cheap for the quality at £1.59, but even at £7.19 for the new release paperback, it's still a decent price for an incredible, if occasionally difficult, read.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
~A Mother's Worst Nightmare~
Dinah Whitcomb is out shopping at the mall with her five year old son Robbie when she realises she can't find the family car. In a bit of a panic, she hunts for the car only for something far worse to happen. She is attacked by a man with a hammer who hits her over the head. Her son is abducted and when she chases the van in which his captor is driving she is run over, her body and face badly mutilated. The physical pain of her injuries is nothing compared to the horrifying loss of her son.
~The neighbours think he's such a nice man~
Chester Cash is a charismatic and attractive man, with long flowing hair and a well toned, muscular body. Ladies like Chester and Chester knows how to use that to his advantage. Men like him to, inviting him over to drink beer and eat barbeque, but Chester is not attracted to men or women - he likes young boys and what he likes, he takes. Chester Cash is 'Daddy Love' and Robbie is the youngest boy he's taken, the latest in a line of victims stolen from their families and passed off as his 'son'.
Chester likes them young but when the boys start to grow he begins to lose interest and the boys lose their lives, their bodies rotting in unmarked graves in the woods by his home. Chester Cash is also a preacher with the ironically titled 'Church of Abiding Hope' and the last person his congregation and neighbours would ever suspect of being a predatory paedophile and child killer.
~Farewell Robbie, Hello Gideon~
In Daddy Love's house Robbie is no more; renamed as Gideon and told that his parents didn't want him, that they gave him away and that his mother was a bad mother because she smoked. Gideon is now Daddy Love's 'son' and is 'trained' like a dog. Good behaviour is praised, bad behaviour is punished, instantly and painfully. In the early days he's kept locked in a coffin-like box called the 'wooden maiden', left struggling to breathe, standing in his own waste with a gag in his mouth. He doesn't know what to believe but he knows he'll be punished and so he does what he's told to. Resistance is futile so he learns to do what his captor tells him.
Cash is not your every day run of the mill 'lock them in the cellar and keep them secret' abuser. He is no Mark Dutroux, Wolfgang Priklopil, Josef Fritz or any of recent history's other infamous men who lock up children and keep them out of sight. Cash's arrogance and confidence in the control he has over Gideon (and the boys who went before) means he lets them go to school and mix in the local community. He tells people that his previous 'son' Deuteronomy went back to his no-good mother. He tells people Gideon's mother is dead - that he is all the poor boy has. The neighbours lap it up, considering him to be such a good man and accepting that the quiet withdrawn boy is suffering from 'grief'. They nod when Cash suggests his son is probably a bit autistic.
~Gone but never forgotten~
Meanwhile Dinah is trying to survive the grief of losing her son, spending hours every day in his room, going for physio, building up her strength after the attack, learning not to look people in the eye or scare them with her deformities. She talks too much, she knows she does, but people accept it, making allowances for what she's been through. She accepts her scars and her damaged body but she cannot accept that she'll never see her boy again. She rehearses in her mind how she'll react when the police call to say they've found her boy. Her husband Whit seeks solace in the arms of one woman after another, each knowing that he can't possibly leave Dinah until the situation with Robbie is resolved. He throws himself into working with charities to support the search for missing children, but he and Dinah are growing apart whilst remaining inexorably bound together by their shared grief.
~Enjoyed is the wrong word~
Is it OK to say I 'enjoyed' this book? I'm sure many would shudder at the idea of such a thing but if you're not familiar with the fiction writing of Joyce Carol Oates, then it's understandable that you might think it impossible to enjoy the skill of the writing whilst being repelled by the subject but that's how the book is. Oates is such an outstanding writer that she's almost excused from the usual taboos of what can and cannot be written about. The book does tell of horrifying abuse but it never lingers on the torments of the boy and his parents, it never plays the physical and sexual abuse for any kind of sick titillation or leaves the reader feeling a bit 'icky' or contaminated by what they've read. The worst of Cash's behaviour is delivered to the page in a matter of fact, straight down the line way that doesn't leave room for self-doubt in the reader. This 'stuff' happens - not writing or reading about it won't stop that.
I nearly gave up when the book had hardly started but that wasn't due to the topic covered. Instead I was baffled by the opening four chapters in which Oates told the story of the abduction, over and over again. Looking back at this now I can see that this must be how the mother was feeling, sitting and playing out the events again and again in her mind but for the reader who doesn't know what's to follow or why the author is doing this, it's just odd and rather irritating repetition. It's a literary device that just didn't work for me. I don't want to be 'bored' by the opening of a book. Once I've invested a hundred pages or so, I'll fight through a slow patch in order to get to the end but I think the opening was a poor choice and one which will mean that many readers who aren't so familiar with Oates may close the cover and not bother to go any further. Hang in there, Oates will deliver.
As readers we are left wondering why Gideon/Robbie doesn't go to teachers, church leaders or neighbours and tell them what's happening whilst at the same time we understand the extreme power Daddy Love has over the boy. What if Cash is right? What if Robbie's parents did give him away, didn't want him any more? What if the only 'love' he can know is the controlling and sexually abusive 'love' that Daddy Love offers him? It may seem crazy to the reader who has the whole story laid out before him, but we know from every case of abuse that's ever been reported that the instinct of a child is to try to be good, to believe the threats of their abuser, to go along with the abuse because there could be something even worse out there if they fight back.
This is not an easy read and not something I can recommend to every reader. I think parents - especially the parents of young children - will probably find this just too raw and painful to read and they might prefer to just not be exposed to this book. Parents or not, readers will have to witness horrifying abuse in the pages of 'Daddy Love'. But if you're a fan of Joyce Carol Oates, you probably know already that she can write on any topic, no matter how abhorrent and leave you grateful for the insight she offers.
Joyce Carol Oates has never been frightened to tackle controversial subjects and she's at her best when she really gets stuck into tough topics. In the past year or so I've read and loved (strange as that sounds) her novel 'Rape: A Love Story' about the persecution of a gang rape victim in a small town, and I've forced myself to experience her deeply personal pain in 'The Widow's Story' her rambling autobiographical account of the pain and hollowness left in her life after her husband's unexpected death. That's not a great read but I feel after many years of reading her that I 'owed' Oates my time and attention to read of her tragedy. I would be surprised if there is any taboo that Oates wouldn't tackle and I know that anything by she writes will be memorable, quite possibly tough going but almost always worth the effort involved.
~Sourcing and details~
Daddy Love was released on the first of February and will currently set you back some ridiculous amount if you pick it up in hardback or airport large format edition. But for those with Kindles, it's currently available for a very reasonable price of £1.69. If you can stomach the topic, it's well worth the read.
Joyce Carol Oates
Published by 'Head of Zeus'
(That's quite manageable for a JCO book - I like her better when she stays under 300 pages.