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Joyce Carol Oates: The Falls

This novel, that takes place from 1950 to 1978, covers the usual Oates themes, namely the sins of the parents being visited on the children, the main characters often living in isolation and the idea of atonement for sins. We start with Gilbert Erskine, in 1950, heading out to the Horseshoe Falls at Niagara, where he will throw himself into the water. Though it is early in the morning – around 6 a.m. – he is seen, by the gatekeeper, who wants him to pay the five cents entrance fee but can do nothing to stop him. Gilbert has been married barely a day and has left his wife, Ariah, née Littrell, back in their hotel room. We learn the reason for his suicide – sexual guilt, repressed homosexual feelings and guilt at not loving his wife. However, his wife and the other characters do not learn these reasons. He does leave a somewhat disjointed suicide note, asking for forgiveness but giving little explanation, which she does not immediately find. When she realises what has happened she goes down to the lobby and looking distraught, is helped by the hotel staff who, by this time, have heard that someone has killed themselves at the falls. For the next seven days, there is a concerted effort to find Gilbert or his body and Ariah, against the advice of both her parents and parents-in-law (in both cases the father is a minister of the church and Ariah and Gilbert are both only children), Ariah is actively involved, going on the boats and looking out over the falls. After seven days, Gilbert’s body is found.

Ariah has been accompanied by Dirk Burnaby, a local lawyer, well connected and a man who is well liked but a committed bachelor yet who neglects his legal practice to help her. After the body is found, Ariah returns to Troy, New York, to her parents but Dirk follows her and woos her. The two are married, barely one month after Gilbert’s death, to the horror of both her parents and former parents-in-law. She is soon pregnant but is very concerned, in case the child might be Gilbert’s. (Though they had not had intercourse, he had had an orgasm on her, part of the shame that led to his suicide.) Her doctor convinces her that Dirk is the father. Her new mother-in-law is convinced otherwise. The child – Chandler – is a quiet boy and is followed by another boy, Royall. Ariah tries to keep away from her husband’s business dealings. Because Dirk and his mother rowed, there was little contact with her and only minimal contact with Dirk’s two married sisters. As a result, she spends most of her time with her children, except that she gives piano lessons, not for the money but because she enjoys it and, as she says, just in case.

Meanwhile, her husband was working more and more, always winning his cases, well connected with the powerful people of the state and on friendly terms with the high and mighty. He is frequently contacted by ordinary people for assistance but turns them down. However, one woman is particularly persistent and, when he sees her with her daughter at a bus stop, he gives her a lift and hears her story of illness, miscarriages and strange substances in the gardens. This is the beginning of the saga that will come to be known as Love Canal, one of the worst cases of environmental pollution in the United States. Dirk becomes more and more involved with the case and there are rumours that he is having an affair with the woman.

However, family tragedy strikes. Ariah has another baby, a daughter, Juliet, and we follow the children as they grow up, though, strangely, most of Juliet’s story is only told at the end of the novel. The family, as a cursed family, has its share of tribulations The story of Ariah’s first marriage, unknown to her children, surfaces now and then and the children struggle in their relationships and careers. Whether they can all come to terms with what happened in 1962 and with one another is key to the novel.

As always Oates tells an intense and doom-ridden story. Her opening segment, though set in 1950, seems like the beginning of a Victorian saga, with her penchant for a somewhat Gothic style. Though the novel ends in 1978, there is still a feeling that the whole saga takes place a long time ago. The main characters struggle with their lives and struggle with their past, even though they may be completely ignorant of it. But, as always, you can be sure that Oates will tell a wonderful tale and will never let up and that she will create fascinating, if somewhat strange characters.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Fourth Estate