This is a masterful if relentlessly dark tale of urban alienation, redeemed by its fluid, pared-down narration and strong voices.
Like a dog circling a corpse, the author uses the first nine chapters gradually to zone in on the rape - which is eventually described from the point of view of the terrified 12 year old daughter of Teena, the flirty thirty-something victim of a horrific gang attack.
The narrative switches between the viewpoints of Teena, her daughter Bethie, her boyfriend Casey, the avenging policeman Dromoor, and several of the congenitally stupid and remorseless perpetrators. This generally works well, though all of the characters are hunted and haunted. In the background is the run down, leftover north-eastern town of Buffalo which seems devoid of beauty or hope. Social devastation is the norm.
The first part is followed by chilling if sketchy pre-trial hearings. The ruthlessly clever defence attorney portrays Teena as an alcoholic-druggie slut, whose desperate but willing prostitution to the crystal meths gang got out of control. Meanwhile, the neighbourhood gossips jealously blame Teena for encouraging rape by her lifestyle, pitilessly exaggerating the victim's supposedly risky behaviour: 'That Maguire woman, she had it coming.' Despair overwhelms.
The last third of the book loses some of its emotional force as the obsessive policeman John Dromoor carries out a series of vengeful murders of the chief rapists. Though predictably satisfying, the vigilante killings let the reader off the hook: they are a fantasy denouement which reduce the effect in the reader's mind of the suffering and degradation of the victims.
However, Oates has a final sting in the tale. We are left with a coda of brief, stark portraits of Bethie and Dromoor, years later, living apparently normal lives with their very different families, from which they feel deeply estranged.