In Daddy Love, by Joyce Carol Oates, a five-year-old child is violently abducted from his mother in a mall parking lot by a serial sexual predator and murderer. We follow the mother’s struggles to live a life bereft of her son Robbie, and the boy’s transformation into the “new son” of the psychopathic “Daddy Love.” As the years pass, they have both changed immeasurable in the name of survival, and there is no telling what else Robbie (now Gideon) will be forced to do in order to stay alive.
If you know Joyce Carol Oates, you know what you’re getting into before even cracking this novella open. She has made a career out of tackling uncomfortable subjects and truly evil characters–the darkest corners of humanity. She has written from the point of view of a serial killer, a girl slowly drowning in a sinking car, a girl in the process of being kidnapped, and, oh yeah, another serial killer.
Accordingly, Daddy Love is not what I would call an easy, or even a pleasant, read. There is substantial physical and mental abuse of a young child, and while Oates uses implications and scene fades to their fullest, there are still enough descriptions of abuse to necessitate trigger warnings. (There is also an extremely upsetting scene with a dog, as if all of the child abuse isn’t stomach-churningly horrendous enough on its own.) Daddy Love himself is a no misunderstood or sympathetic villain; he is completely and unwaveringly evil, without any redeeming features. Robbie and Dinah (his biological mother) are much more nuanced. It’s especially interesting reading Robbie’s thoughts as he grows up with Daddy Love, and the ways in which his internalized abuse changes his behaviors.
The opening chapters were a magnificent, harrowing exercise, wherein the kidnapping incident is replayed over and over (much as you know Robbie’s mother replayed it ceaselessly in her mind, to the police, to family and friends) with slight differences each time. The tweaking of small details and of perspectives alerts us to the unreliability of memory, especially in such a physically-dangerous and emotionally-charged situation. In the hands of another author, this repetitiveness might have come off as trite or hackneyed, but Oates is a master, and she makes it work.
I did find it unrealistic that all of Robbie/Gideon’s teachers would miss all of the (glaring) signs of his abuse. No matter how charming his “father” was, he still displayed bruises, was shy to the point of being non-communicative, had a slumped posture, hated being touched, etc. Teachers are trained to be very sensitive to any potential signs of abuse, and the fact that even his art teacher (who was impressed by his dark illustrations of children being held captive in boxes, for pete’s sake) didn’t suspect anything was probably one of the least believable things in the book.
While I don’t think it’s Oates’ strongest work, even her middling work is more gripping and horrifying than many other authors’ best novels. Those who enjoy things like Law & Order:SVU (like me–total guilty pleasure) will probably find themselves engrossed in this novel. I received Daddy Love free for review from publisher Mysterious Press through Netgalley. Daddy Love will be released January 8, 2013.
Bookwanderer Rating: Three out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Young children remember very little. Unless the corollary was more likely: Young children forget very much.”