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Customer Review

9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This Book Will Not Change Your Life, 30 Nov. 2008
This review is from: My Sister My Love (Paperback)
The easiest way to hook the reader into wanting to read My Sister, My Love would be to describe it as a novel inspired by the murder of the American child-beauty-queen JonBenet Ramsey. Which is true as far as it goes: Oates has changed names to protect the accused, made the victim an ice-dancer rather than a pageant idol (a decision which serves her well, allowing the author of 'On Boxing' to convey the drama of her victim's performances in a sporting context which remains as prurient a milieu as the profoundly unsporting world of the beauty contest), and messed with the timelines a little, so that in this narrative the paedophile who issues a confabulated confession to the child-victim's murder emerges in the immediate aftermath of the event, rather than ten years later: but, in the unforgiving space of the blurb, it seems a superficially acceptable summary.

Except, of course, that it isn't. It's a complete disaster, because it creates the impression that the book will be of interest to a demographic who will probably fail to get beyond the first five pages; and it makes the book sound sleazy and disgusting to those who would actually enjoy it.

The first group are, of course, that subset of the book-buying public that every bookseller regards with at least a little reserve: the habitues of the true crime section, the devotees of the misery memoir. Such individuals, scenting a whiff of puerile blood, will inevitably be drawn to a novel based on the most sensational American murder of the last decade; but they will not stay long, because they, and many of their own sacred cows, are among the targets which come in for a fierce satirical attack. Not least of these revered bovines is the idea of the misery-memoir itself: despite such genre-staples as an unhappy childhood, unloving parents, encounters with paedophiles, drug-addiction, mental illness and the later intervention of an inspiring, religious mentor-figure, Skyler, the novel's titular narrator, remains defiantly miserable throughout, while it is his despised mother who embraces the narrative of suffering, faith and redemption, appearing on tabloid talk shows to hawk 'inspirational' memoirs with titles like 'From Hell to Heaven: 11 Steps for the Faithful' and 'Pray for Mummy: A Mother's Pilgrimage from Grief to Joy'. Betsey Rampike is a woman determined to prove Fitzgerald wrong: her life is all second-act, her fame the unintended consequence of her daughter's murder, a murder which, it's implied, she may well have had a hand in.

While it will frustrate readers drooling to devour accounts of harmed children, one of the joys of this novel for less prurient readers is the way in which Oates skewers the language of a particularly toxic strain of American culture: the language of self-help, and the way in which the facile narratives of this genre have colonised other areas of discourse. Betsey Rampike's 'faith' is not the deep, inner struggle of the true, thinking believer who wrestles with the angel of his dogma, but a self-justifying, self-aggrandising hoodoo which she resorts to when praying that her daughter will win ice-skating competitions and as a way of emerging, unscathed and perversely triumphant, in the aftermath of that same daughter's horrific death; her husband, Bix, speaks to his son in a bizarre argot of business-biog and pop-science cliches, with a few misrendered foreign expressions, picked up in his Cornell days, thrown in; and the Rampike children, like all the other children in Fair Hills, New Jersey, swim around in an alphabet-soup of newly-discovered 'syndromes' and 'disorders', some of which are familiar to this psychology student's eye and some of which, though invented, sound frighteningly close to the kind of thing we may one day see in DSM-V, especially given the ever-closer collusion between psychiatrists, psychologists and the manufacturers of the now-ubiquitous 'meds' that the Fair Hills kids pop and trade like Pokemon cards.

With the exception of the novel's twisted and self-confessedly unreliable protagonist/narrator, almost nobody in this book speaks anything that sounds like truth. Certainly none of the respectable adults do. In place of self-examination, they substitute cliches, ecclesiastical tidbits, misunderstood latin and therapy-talk, all with the aim, not of coming to terms with their predicament, but of 'affirming' themselves and 'moving on.' Someone may have moved their cheese but, by golly, they're going to damn well get back on their horse and ride down the road less travelled until they reach the tipping point that will shift their peaceful, chicken-soup-eating warriors' souls into a purpose-driven life. Drowned out by self-affirmation, reason sleeps, producing monsters.
There really is no better discussion of the replacement of reasoned discourse with self-help boosterism, which is an important issue for those of us who deeply wish for a return to a more serious culture, than 'My Sister, My Love.' I wouldn't go so far as to say that it will change your life: but it will certainly make you think a lot more deeply about the health of the culture we inhabit.
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