My sister, my love

A review of My sister, my love by Joyce Carol Oates. A journey through the dark side of America.

Review first published in Italian on

Leggere Donna, 149/2010, Tufani Pubshing


The invisible people of literary realism live again through Joyce Carol Oates’ characters. Perhaps their raggedy clothes are now sequin dresses and cashmere pullovers, but under their cosmetic and smooth skin they are still children, teens, outcasts, and losers in a world of successful people. They are the unlucky children of the upper class, souls who fleetingly meet each other on the brink of an abyss. They search for a fragment of beauty, sense, and love. Their childhood has been devastated by the “Tabloid Hell”, but once in the past they were children.

What did you hate most in that period?

The fact I could never say the truth. And you?

The fact I could never say the truth


Joyce Carol Oates succeeds and wins a great challenge. She speaks about the unspeakable and in order to do this she chooses a news story which has been shocking the American conscience for many years. It is the murder of a child beauty queen. The tragedy has now mythical traits and still causes sociological debates, but Oates elaborates it in a feverish novel in the name of a complex and necessary consideration.

Truth and moral honesty (even if unscrupulous), is what most of us search for in a writer. However, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by anguish in front of a troublesome, repressed, and socially unacceptable truth. The hell – says Oates – is not somewhere else, but conceals itself under the courteous veil of normality. And it is universally accepted.

In the reality, JonBenét Ramsey was found dead at home on the Holy Night of 1996. The case is still unresolved but the scientific investigation clearly points at the parents. In the novel, the alter ego of JonBenét is Edna Louise (renamed Bliss by a mother desirous of giving a new name to her famous child). The voice-over is the brother Skyler, who ten years after is a teenager and above all a hell survivor. Skyler is a compassionate and extraordinarily ironic narrator. He is a child searching for redemption from sins he has not committed.

But don’t be afraid of touching the untouchable. Don’t be afraid of committing a social sin when reading a writer who transforms such a tragic event in a work of fiction. The subject is worth an analysis. Firstly, there is the theft of childhood. Secondly, there is the crystal clear description of a culture in which the human being – like a modern Faust – has exchanged his soul for mansions, SUVs, Botox and antidepressants. A culture in which the only thing that counts – behind the sacred bourgeois family – is the God of Richness.

Oates’ settings are thus grotesque horror-movie locations: mansions deformed by ambition and territories populated by absence and dehumanized people. Oates knifes a society that has transformed the human beings in unemotional puppets. However, her delicacy in dealing with the case is unimpeachable. There is no morbidity. On the contrary, Oates stands out for intellectual integrity and capacity to describe feelings. This writer really points the finger at the monster’s heart. She doesn’t let herself to be confused. She steps forward the mean machinery of society, reveals the very architecture of falsification, and exposes the potentially murder coils of family relationships.

The narration doesn’t spare us some details we would prefer to avoid. In this corrupted world children have a life full of tasks and purposes, misuse psychopharmacological drugs and are sacrificed to Ambition by careerist parents. It’s hard to imagine irony, hope, and redemption. However, in the last pages of My sister, my love Skyler finds again the feeble glow of a forgotten word: love. Perhaps we still can save ourselves. Perhaps nothing has been decided. Not yet.

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