We were the Mulvaneys – Joyce Carol Oates

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On one level this is a classic family saga – it tells the story of what at first sight seems like the perfect post-war American family – homely successful and self-made. But there’s a sense of foreboding. The seventeen year old daughter, Marianne, is raped after a Valentine prom by a boy from a wealthy established family. The rest of the book deals with the fall-out for the family: the Dad, Michael Sr, can’t handle it and sends his daughter away, effectively never seeing her again; the Mum, Corrine, maintains the facade of strength but denies what has happened, supported by a deep Christian faith; one brother, Michael Sr, just gets on with his life; another, Patrick, becomes more and more obsessed by it, eventually confronting and executing justice on the rapist; and the final brother, Judd, tells the story in this book.

The book is very impressive on psychological minutea and insight, delving subtly but deeply into the reactions of each person. It doesn’t always try to explain in full what people are doing or thinking, and why, but you can always see the ripples from the incident. The level of denial about what happened by the parents, especially Corrine, and the level of self-blame by Marianne, is astounding, with the former very much feeding the latter.

An interesting theme running through the book is faith: an unswerving Christian faith in god guiding their lives, despite everything, is crucial to the Mum and daughter’s reactions of denial and self-blame. Patrick, on the other hand, becomes a Dawkins-like Darwinian, ridiculing the idea of faith, though one is led to wonder whether his conviction about empiricism and science is in fact exactly the same as his mother’s faith: an appeal to something bigger to make sense of what had happened to their family.

Class also features heavily, though subtly. The Mulvaneys are working class made good, with Michael Sr the classic self made man who has built a successful roofing business and is now part of the civic elite in the area – in the country club, the chamber of commerce etc. Marianne is raped by the son of a local lawyer who is part of the traditional elite – landed, historically rich and powerful. It is this class difference between the two parties that has the impact: the rapist and family face no consequences from the event, whereas the Mulvaneys are ostracised, indicating that their status was contingent on the success and good will of the elite, whereas the elite’s status was solid. Who would be believed if it came down to it – the farm family or the establishment? Class may also be cause of the inherent inferiority the adult Mulvaneys feel, which seems to deter them from pursuing justice and leads then to blame themselves and Marianne for the rape, rather than the rapist.

An excellent and very thoughtful novel that successfully combines a gripping story with fascinating, believable characters whilst tackling some big issues.

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