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     Volume 4 Issue 68 | October 21, 2005 |

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Book Review

Murder she wrote

Elena Seymenliyska

When 31-year-old Nikki Eaton visits her widowed mother Gwen for lunch on Mother's Day, 2004, in upstate New York, she doesn't know it will be the last time she'll see her alive. And when, after hearing yet again of her mother's disapproval of her relationship with a married man, Nikki snaps: "You are not me, and I am not you. And thank God for that," before storming off, she doesn't know that those are the last words she'll ever say to her.

Mother, Missing
Joyce Carol Oates

Otherwise, it is a typical family meal. "Good-natured, good-hearted" Gwen is a housewife in the 1950s mould, an uncomplicated-seeming woman who lives for her family, bakes her own bread, and helps her church and her charities. As usual, she has invited too many people and is refusing help in the kitchen. "Getting a headstart on cleanup was for Mom what illicit sex was for other people," as Nikki puts it. She, meanwhile, bickers with her elder sister and flirts with her brother-in-law; her new, purple-dyed spiky haircut is the focus of attention.

With her "funky-chic", thrift-store look (think Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan), Nikki is seen as the "voice of the new generation" at the local paper, where she is a features writer. She knows she's glamorous only to her teenage niece, yet she still maintains a rebel's self-image and a view of her parents - her mother in particular - that is untainted by the deeper, nuanced understanding of adulthood.

As Nikki leaves the Mother's Day meal, muttering to herself "I will punish her, I won't call her tomorrow", it is clear she is being set up for a fall. And what a fall it is. Two days later, Nikki calls round to her mother's house, only to find her dead in a pool of blood. Family drama temporarily gives way to police procedural but this is no nail-biting murder mystery, and Gwen's "meth-head" killer is arrested within four hours of her death.

Mother, Missing is Joyce Carol Oates's 44th novel. Like her previous book, Rape: A Love Story, a powerful novella about the unpredictable after-effects of a violent rape, it is inspired by real events, in this case her mother's death. The book is being published in the US under the title Missing Mom, which is much more apt - despite the criminal element of Gwen's death, the novel is mainly about a daughter's grief for her mother, and Oates writes addressing a reader who will one day, inevitably, identify with Nikki's bereavement.

"Last time you see someone and you don't know it will be the last time. And all that you know now, if only you'd known then. But you didn't know, and now it's too late," Oates writes, inelegantly, at the start of the story. It is not the only displeasing moment in the novel. The style is patchy, lyrical one moment, crime-thrillerish the next. It has its perceptive moments (the aching disbelief of Nikki's raw grief as she wakes up asking: "Is Mom still dead?") but also, toe-curlingly, one chapter made up of multiple "WHY?"s.

Most significantly, Nikki is an unsympathetic heroine, tiresomely confident of her sexual allure and relentlessly obsessed with her outfits. The first time she returns to her mother's house post-mortem, she tells us she's wearing "black nylon slacks that fitted my buttocks to advantage". Later, when she has moved into her mother's and her brother-in-law comes to visit, she is in "faded jeans just snug enough to show my derriere to advantage". Repetition notwithstanding, this wouldn't matter if only the men she's keen to impress weren't so unimpressive themselves, and the clothes she's so proud of weren't so embarrassing (red lacy top with boxy shoulder pads; fuchsia satin shirt with "Cowgirl" above the breast). She even turns the style police on Detective Strabane, the man who found her mother's murderer, and gasps over his ill-fitting suit, too short trousers and "fashion blunder" of a tie.

Nikki is presented as urbane, sexy and sophisticated, yet she comes across as square, gauche and clueless, so it's difficult to trust her judgement. As she sorts through the debris of her parents' lives, she learns that her father's death was less peaceful than she'd been led to believe, and that her mother's life before marriage was more colourful than she had imagined, yet it's hard to share her shock (did she really think she had cookie-cutter parents?). The idea, of course, is that a daughter has to lose her mother to find her as a person - a concept about as fresh as Nikki's thrift-store outfits.

Source: The Guardian

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