Book review: Daddy Love by Joyce Carol Oates

The popularity of the “misery memoir” genre has waned a little recently. In its wake, novelists have taken up the challenge relating the story of the abused and the destroyed.

Daddy Love by Joyce Carol Oates

Head of Zeus, 288pp, £16.99

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Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones told her story from the viewpoint of a young girl, raped and murdered; Emma Donoghue’s Room was narrated by the little boy conceived to his mother who was the prisoner of a rapist.

The latter novel also came in the aftermath of possibly the worst fate to be inflicted on a young person – what one article called at the time the “internment” of Elisabeth Fritzl, the young woman imprisoned in a specially-built bunker in Austria by her father, who repeatedly raped and impregnated her. Public fascination with such cases has been called voyeuristic, our interest in the details of their suffering bordering on the pornographic. How much do we need to know? And why do we want to know it?

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Joyce Carol Oates has long had an interest in what we might call “evil”, and how love is perverted by it. Her 2003 novel, Rape: A Love Story and 2008 My Sister, My Love both focused on the violence done to women and young girls (the latter inspired by the mystery of the JonBenet Ramsey murder). What else can we call such actions but “evil”? Daddy Love begins, in desperation, three times: three times, we recapture the moment that five-year-old Robbie is snatched from his mother Dinah in the car park of a shopping mall in Ypsilanti in Michigan, each time the telling a little different. Despite being hit on the head with a hammer, Dinah finds the strength to get up and chase the van holding her son. The driver smashes into her, almost killing her.

From the parents’ viewpoint, we switch first to the kidnapper, Chester Czechi, who impersonates a preacher as he travels the country. Czechi, or ‘“Daddy Love” as he likes his victims to refer to him is a psychopath, a predatory paedophile who kidnaps young boys, takes them home and rapes them, then kills them when they get too old, which means about 12 or 13. He has delusions of grandeur and a hatred of women which he uses to justify his actions – this child is “destined to be one of his”, the mother is incapable, he saw her smoking a cigarette in front of her son at one point. Yet he himself is a “restless American type” whom men and women like equally.

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Carol Oates weaves between Czechi’s psychological state and that of the little boy, kept trapped in a coffin when he is “naughty”, repeatedly raped and terrorised, to show a child learning to live with daily, unimaginable horror.

Much of this is excruciating to read, although Carol Oates doesn’t dwell too long on these moments. She knows that voyeurism leads us on – this novel is every bit as compelling a read as Sebold’s or Donogue’s – and she makes us uncomfortable with our own fascination with evil. These stories are every parent’s – and every child’s – nightmare. They prove that the bogeyman does exist, and he will get you.

Does Oates’ portrayal of Czechi’s psychological state make him less of a monster, though, more easy to comprehend? Hardly. Czechi likes to carry on his pretence to the full – he likes to pretend these boys are really his, and so he enrols Robbie in the local school, where his dark paintings and silent manner attract attention. This is punished, too, when Czechi kills the only thing the boy has to love, a dog called Missy. Robbie is caught in a damaging cycle of love and hate for the man who abuses him but who also feeds him, shelters him, gives him treats.

Is it too far to suggest a God-complex here, and further, that this relationship resembles our own relationship with God? A God who inflicts all sorts of daily horrors on us, but who also commands us to love him?

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Like Room, Daddy Love is also interested in the aftermath. We need to know, Carol Oates says, to show how we can survive such horrors, and how a family can come together again after such a ripping apart.

The family is a fragile thing, but it is also strong, a counterpoint to the “evil” an individual like Czechi can do. In what could be read as a profoundly humanist story, it is human beings who repair the damage other human beings inflict.