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Joyce Carol Oates: Childwold

This novel takes up some of Oates’ favourite themes – the wanderer returning to his native land, the young woman alone in the world, the eruption of unexpected violence and an attempt at spiritual rebirth. But she also delves into Joyce with her play on words (e.g. the title word) and even into Nabokov territory, with the story of an older man lusting after a fourteen-year old girl and then marrying her mother (though there the similarity with Nabokov ends.)

The story is of Kasch, who has been through a messy divorce, and returns to Eden County, his birthplace. There he meets Laney, a fourteen year old, and wants to form and educate her but also falls in love with her and wants to have sex with her. When her mother, Arlene, shows up, not only does he, like Humbert Humbert, marry her but falls in love with her. The rest of the story is told from different perspectives – Arlene, Kasch and Laney but also Arlene’s son, Vale, a Vietnam vet and a violent man, and Arlene’s father, Joseph. Kasch tries to integrate into the Bartlett family (Arlene has nine children) but, in good Oates style, it all goes horribly wrong when he confronts and kills one of her former lovers. He is acquitted but is sent to a mental institution and, on release, ends up as a hermit. But, once again, we can only marvel at Oates’ story-telling powers as she switches points of view and gives us a free-flowing story that works very well.

Publishing history

First published 1976 by Vanguard Press