"The Doll Master" Joyce Carol Oates
This is a collection of 6 short stories from one of the most renowned contemporary writers of our time. I have recently become a real fan of short stories; finding them a real test of a writer's skill to create an effective plot and believable characters within a limited number of pages. I like the fact that it gives an author an opportunity to explore a snapshot in time or conjure a variety of voices within one volume, displaying the diversity and range of their writing. This volume does not disappoint.
These are dark, haunting stories. They are harrowing and quite relentless in their terror and unnerving subject matter. Oates has not been afraid to take on the personas of figures usually ostracised and condemned by society without being given a voice or a chance to be heard. All the characters are vivid and utterly - disturbingly even - believable and convincing. Within the first few lines I knew I was in the hands of an highly accomplished writer and in for a real treat - if scaring yourself silly can be called a treat!
My favourite story was the titled piece "The Doll Master". To me, anything about dolls is immediately terrifying and this story is certainly still haunting me. It starts with the narrator taking us back to when he was 4 and his cousin Amy aged 3. Amy has a beautiful baby doll called "Emily"which she is possessive about although does repeat the adult expression of "You can hold her. But don't drop her." Even this in itself implies the inevitable harm that will follow. After Amy's sudden death from Leukaemia, the narrator becomes obsessed with her doll which he takes and keeps for himself and this then leads to a fascination of collecting "found dolls."
The narrator is unreliable; twisted, unhinged -outwardly showing self control as a good, reliable student but inside someone unable to tell the difference between reality and delusion. He follows the voice of the "Friend" too willingly and whether this friend is a true person or an imagined delusion is unclear. A few references to the mother's need for medication, the rows between his parents, his father's violent despair of his interest in"girl's toys" and the boys visits to a psychotherapist imply that the reader is not being given the whole picture by the narrator and indeed there is more cause for concern than the explanation that he simply collects "found dolls" which he stores in the abandoned carriage shed.
This was a brilliant story and unputdownable. The best thing about a short story is that it can be read in one sitting and with this one it is the only way to read it! The writing is exquisite and disturbing. The linguistic devices and use of language so sophisticated and effective (worthy of much more study) yet it is an effortless and fluid read. It's amazing that a woman can create a male character of such horror with such conviction.
I also liked "Soldier" which is the voice of a character in prison. I thought this was interesting as Oates is giving a voice to those evil characters which are unrepresented or often cliched when in novels. She fully immerses the reader in a world of criminals and murderers.
My second favourite story was "Equatorial" which I could imagine as a great TV series or film. Here we meet a woman who is her husband's third wife and lives in fear of being usurped by a younger model. She is frightened of her husband and constantly apologising for herself despite his subtle attempts to continuously place her in difficult, dangerous situations where an "accident" may "innocently" befall her. They travel around the world to exotic locations but she is plagued by illness and weakness and unable to embrace the challenges and adventures in the same way he does. Her character is so well crafted that her fear, paranoia and anxiety are palpable and infectious. The tension increases when she realises that whilst on the cruise ship they are outside the jurisdiction of US law and instead at the fate of the Equatorial legal system which is open to bribes and rarely sees the perpetrator arrested. Surrounded by pills, poisons. accidents, cliff paths, night walks on the ship's deck, she is frequently presented with the opportunity for death or suicide and it is clear to the reader how these situations are being manipulated by the seemingly charming husband. A great story!
These were a good read. They are like Edgar Allen Poe, MR James and Susan Hill. Oates is a truly talented writer and these stories illustrate her imaginative power to get inside the minds of the frightened, the tormented and the down right evil.
My thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to review this book in return for a fair and honest review.
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