One of the most powerful books I ever read was Blonde – a searing account of the imagined interior life of Marilyn Monroe. Whilst Oates insists that this work, like The Sacrifice, must be seen as a product of the imagination, not an account of history, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that in both cases.
In The Sacrifice a young, ill-educated black girl goes missing and when found, tied up on a tarpaulin in an abandoned building, claims to have been abducted and raped by white police officers. In the light of a year in which black youths have been killed by white police officers across the USA, this kind of material is clearly complex, problematic and nuanced. Sybilla, the young girl who is at the centre of The Sacrifice, although she can hardly be called the protagonist, is little more than a mirror in which other characters reflect their views and prejudices – her mother Ednetta sees the belief that a black family can’t get justice from white officials, a ‘black’ police officer chosen to meet Ednetta’s demand for ‘one of us’ sees herself as tokenised and, very swiftly, demeaned by both the family she’s sent to help and her colleagues. The Mudrick brothers see her as an opportunity – the chance to make money, gain prestige and score points against a white community that they see as ripe for some kind of reparation … or maybe just exploitation.
The imagination, as always with Oates, is phenomenal, but in this novel it’s perhaps a phenomenon that exceeds its remit. Sybilla swiftly vanishes behind the multiple voices that narrate this story and without a clear focus on this troubled and troubling young girl, we easily see the virtuosity rather than the value of exploring what happens when race becomes a card that is played in political, economic and even religious arenas.
I struggled a little with the language too … use of any kind of argot or patois when you’re not a native speaker is open to criticism (and I’ve done it myself, in more than one story) but I couldn’t quite work out the rules underpinning the speech of several of Oates’s characters and that troubled me.
Equally difficult is the occasional point of view slip that side-swipes the supposed character with the brilliance of the writer. Right towards the end of the book when Ednetta and Sybilla are isolated and frightened, Ednetta looks at her daughter entering the kitchen and thinks ‘her hair was like a Bushman’s’. Not only is this a casually racist remark, it’s totally out of character for barely literate Ednetta. I’m not naive enough to be ignorant of black-on-black racism but I am certainly not integrated enough to suggest that a white writer should attempt to depict it, nor that this kind of approach is acceptable in a world where one of the few possible reasons for claiming literature has value is that it can break down barriers and educate across schisms. This hardly seems like the way to do either.
I’m a staunch supporter of the writer’s right (maybe even duty) to project imaginatively into any character he or she chooses to attempt. I believe Joyce Carol Oates is one of the best contemporary examples of this approach, but I don’t think she’s really pulled it off in The Sacrifice.