“Cardiff, by the Sea” by Joyce Carol Oates

Cardiff by the sea

Genre: Suspense
Publisher: Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press
Publication Date: October 6, 2020

How does a reviewer review anything written by the living legend, Joyce Carol Oates?  Is there any new critique one can possibly add? It is fair to say that Oates is one of the great writers of our time. For decades, she has written in a variety of styles and genres. Particularly effective are her portrayals of violence and evil in modern society. She is a master storyteller in all genres: “We Were the Mulvaneys,” is the family saga that explores its breakdown, “Blonde,” is the ultimate study of Marilyn Monroe through a bio-fiction, or in “The Accursed” she is at her gothic best.  “Cardiff, by the Sea” consists of four previously unpublished novellas. (I am interested in learning when the author wrote these stories). In these four, we get a good understanding as to why she has been dubbed the “grand mistress of ghoulishness.”  Or her more personal nickname of, “Princeton’s Dark Lady of Fiction.” 

Oates’ protagonists are usually feminine as they are in this book. The title novella, “Cardiff, by the Sea,” which is my favorite in the collection, reads like a fever dream. A young woman in academia, who was adopted at the age of two, receives a phone call from a lawyer concerning her birth family. She inherited a house in Cardiff, Maine from her biological grandmother whom she has never heard of before.  Let the terror begin. She travels to Maine and for the first time and meets her great-aunts and their nephew who is her uncle.  The aunts in this short reminded me of the eccentric aunts in the black and white Cary Grant movie, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” The aunts in the film are portrayed as sweet loving old ladies who just happen to poison lonely men to put them out of their misery. Also, the psychopath uncle from the old movie reminds me of the uncle here in Oates’ imagination. In “Cardiff” the aunts speak so rapidly, without a breath in between words, that the young woman as well as the reader can get a headache. I believe that this is a trick by the author to confuse us. No one is poisoned in the novella but this is best that I can do to get my point across without spoilers. However, I can share, while the young woman stays with her biological family she remembers her traumatic early childhood. These memories are written in a manner that reads as if they are outbursts from the young woman’s unconscious.  She, nor the reader, is ever sure if they are real or fake memories. Either way, they are blood curdling scary.

My least favorite and the most bizarre in the collection is “Miao Dao.” The story centers on a young teenage girl who’s one of the first in her class to reach puberty. Bad things have been happening to her as she has begun to mature. Unfortunately, her new breasts make her a target for boys who like to bully by “accidentally” bumping into her while making lewd remarks.  Simultaneously her parents divorce and she now lives with a lecherous stepfather.  She shuts down from all in her life and becomes almost a hermit.  Her only friends are a pack of feral cats living in her neighborhood. Oates does such a good job of making us feel the girl’s loneliness, and how these cats become her lifeline.  She has taken to sneaking out at night and sleeping with them. And, here is where things get weird. Her new friends become her fierce protectors. One of them grows large and turns into a ferocious cat that may or may not have killed one of the boys who tormented her.  In this novella, the famous author reminds me of a modern day Kafka. In his novella, “The Metamorphosis,” did the salesman really turn into a bug, or was his transformation a psychological interpretation of his feelings towards his family and his life. In a way, the same could be said here. Did the cat magically grow strong enough to become able to kill a human or is Oates using its transformation as an analysis of her character?  On the other hand, is her character the actual killer and there is nothing mystical at all going on?  Damn, Oates is good. The reason I was a bit disappointed in “Miao” is that the teen is written more like a girl obsessed with feral cats than a girl expressing her feelings through them. Still, the author gets her point across.

The other two stories revolve around plotlines that Oates has looked at before. One is about a female student who is obsessed with her older professor including all the crap that goes into such a relationship. The other explores motherhood when a female poet has a fatal attraction to a man whom she marries. They are both top quality reads and as always between the horrors, Oates makes you think about aggression against women by the hands of men. “Cardiff” carefully goes back and forth from psychological suspense and supernatural events, but the tales are always creepy.  I do not believe that I have ever not recommended a book by my favorite author.  This one is no different. As usual, when reading, “Princeton’s Dark Lady of Fiction” you will probably end up having nightmares.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review

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