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This book was recommended to me by my best friend - as high school girls, I had introduced her to 'Lolita', so I guess this was her way of returning the favour! I went to Borders to browse through it to see if it was worth the money, and I was instantly pulled in by the different type faces - the character's narrative will often go into smaller or bigger font and literally trail off the page as their mental state deteriorates. I bought it based on that and was unable to put it down for the week it took me to finish it, despite it being quite a lengthy tome.
The book is roughly based on the Jon-Benet Ramsay case, as told from the perspective of her older, less successful brother. Rather than a mini beauty pageant queen, Bliss Rampike is a champion ice skater fulfilling the dreams that her slightly pudgy mother was never able to realise herself. Despite the risqué title, the book very rarely drifts into completely lascivious territory - Skyler's relationship with his sister was innocent, though his own guilt and feelings of inadequacy manifest themselves in angry, confused memories of her. Their father's infidelity, their mother's shortcomings, and Skyler's Oedipal fascination with her, make up the bulk of this novel, and the characters are richly drawn.
The story, clearly, grabs the attention, and impels you to keep reading. I found the family entirely believable, though the life that the mother is able to build for herself post-tragedy, when compared to the infamy that Mrs Ramsay ended her life amidst, stretches the imagination. However, I had never read Joyce Carol Oates before, but I will now be keeping an eye out for her other works. She believably inhabits this 20-something male's voice, and I'm interested to see how she tackles her other characters.
On 29th January 1997, six-year-old Bliss Rampike is found murdered inside her family home. Bliss's tragic story is of interest to the media and public as Bliss was a rising star in ice-skating circles.
Skyler Rampike, Bliss' older brother, tells his side of the story In this book; how Bliss' fame came to be, what the Rampike family household was like and why he was accused of her murder. The question is, can we rely on his version of events?
Joyce Carol Oates' story of Bliss Rampike is supposed to be a fictional tale, although most people who read this story are told that it could be almost identical to the circumstances of the real life murder of little beauty queen, JonBenet Ramsey who at six years old also, was found dead in her parents home just hours after she was reported missing. In fact, when looking at the facts of the Ramsey case and then comparing them to the story, there are a lot of similarities, and although Oates does warn readers at the beginning of the book that this story is completely fictional, it is hard to not get yourself involved with it believing that this information is all taken from the original Ramsey case - which makes for compelling reading indeed!
However, I cannot stress enough how difficult I found this to read. This is the first Oates book I've read, and although she is apparently well known, I've never heard of her, but I was just intrigued enough to pick this book up after reading the back cover.
As I mentioned, this book narrated by Bliss' older brother Skyler ten years after the tragic death of his sister. Skyler makes frequent references to the fact that his mum as become famous from such memoirs and he himself at 19 has decided to give it a go.
The first problem is that it is clear from the outset that Skyler is a very troubled teenager as a consequence of what happened nearly ten years ago. This is obviously deliberate, the reader is supposed to be confused as to which version should be believed and Skyler himself often comes back on himself and questions whether his version of events is actually true and admits in some cases that the conversation he just retold was not actually fact as he wasn't there, he just assumes that was how it went. Although this would keep the reader guessing as to the events leading up to, during and after Bliss' murder, I found it frustrating as I need to trust the narrators version of events as to be true. I know this isn't always the case, but I find that although the characters do lie, the narrator is supposed to be telling a true and factual account of the events, and personally I need something solid in the story to rely on to get myself involved with the story.
Not only this, but the book pages are littered with footnotes - and then later on, footnotes that have footnotes! The story becomes so disjointed by this point that I had to constantly re-read pages as I read a line that directed me to a footnote that actually had little bearing to the story as a whole and then by that point I had forgotten what I had been reading in the first place.
My third problem was the lead up to the murder. Most of the book - in fact, three quarters of the book were setting the scene and describing Skyler and Bliss' family life. This background detail was necessary of course as this is supposed to be his memoir of his childhood and especially as, not so subtly, Skyler points out how fame hungry his mother was and how little they saw of their footballer-turned-exec father. However, although crucial to an extent, I did feel that a lot of this could have been scaled down and wasn't completely essential to the story.
All of this, I know, was part of the plan on showing Skyler to be an unreliable narrator and I can appreciate how cleverly Oates has done this, but I think she might've gone a step too far.
As for the characters, Skylers portrait of his family was much more interesting than his garbled attempts at describing his feelings. When Skyler is describing his childhood, I felt sympathy for both him and his sister and frustration at their parents and I thought the ending of this tale. You do get to find out who killed Bliss, but once again, is it REALLY the truth coming from Skyler himself? It makes you wonder when there are so many similarities to the Ramsey case, which, after many trials, remains unsolved.
Overall I'd say this was a disappointing read. This held the promise of an interesting tale that relates to a real-life murder but In my opinion, the books 562 pages were completely unnecessary and Oates went overboard in trying to portray Skylers mental health issues when the point had been made very clear from almost the outset. It made for tough reading at times and I had to fight to find the more interesting and coherent paragraphs among all of his sarcasm and hatred over what happened to him. By the end of the book, although I understood his feelings and I had more (than enough!) of a sense of why he is what he is, I still just generally felt relieved that I'd gotten through it.