‘My sister, my love’ – Joyce Carol Oates

I’d only read one book by Oates before I picked up this one, rather intrigued by the blurb. Oates tells the story, through the voice of the narrator, Skyler Rampike, of an American family whose lives are torn apart by the mysterious death (murder?) of Skyler’s young sister Bliss, an ice-skating prodigy.

The death doesn’t come along until a long way into the book (and it’s quite a long book), but it is foreshadowed from the beginning. None of the characters are particularly pleasant, though one comes to sympathise with them, particularly the children. Long before the death, there were tensions between status-obsessed husband and wife (for example, the reader knows, through Skyler’s innocent observations, that his father is a serial adulterer, as well as ambitious beyond his talents), and they do not come across as loving parents, though their mother would indignantly deny this (she is appallingly self-deluded throughout, and by the end this reader found herself horrified by her character). There are also hints that Mr Rampike was sexually abusing his daughter, but it’s unclear whether this is Skyler’s understanding, or hints that he picked up from his mother. Both children are desperate to gain their parents’ approval and love, though Skyler is a more notable failure, but it’s evident that neither parent actually understands their children, nor realises how unhappy they are – or seems to care.

It’s very cleverly written, in a non-chronological and fractured manner designed, I think, to convey the fractured reality of Skyler’s present life, as a young man tormented by the fact that he might have killed his little sister (though he does not know as much).

This is an extraordinary book, painful and uncomfortable, satirical (particularly about the child-related aspirations of America’s professional classes) and troubled. Skyler’s voice is a compelling one, even when he’s telling the reader about things that don’t show him in a good light, and brutally honest (as far as the reader can tell), though he does consciously play tricks with the narrative. I didn’t exactly enjoy it, though I did appreciate the story and Oates’ prose: it’s certainly a very compelling and thought-provoking novel.

It’s evident that Oates took as inspiration for the novel the case of JonBenét Ramsey, whose murder has never been solved, and suspicion for which has lain on her family. In ‘My sister, my love’, Oates does give us closure, and a possible solution, but the knowledge is painful, both for the reader and for Skyler.

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