Book review: Give me your heart by Joyce Carol Oates

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Give me your heart BY Joyce Carol Oates Corvus, 260pp, £16.99

Some of the stories in this collection have been published previously in crime journals such as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which indicates what is to be found within: Joyce Carol Oates's characteristic interest in the darker side of human nature, in the violence of love, the criminal aspect to obsessive feeling, the danger of lust.

From the days of her 1993 novel, Foxfire: Memoirs of a Girl Gang she has shown us the daughters of blue-collar workers in thrall to dangerous men, vulnerable but tough at the same time. Here, those daughters crop up again, but we also see paranoid husbands, damaged former soldiers, discarded sons. Everyone has a heart to lose.

Oates's title story gives a new spin on an old saying about scorned women: an older man who once seduced a young student with the words "My darling, you have my heart, Always, forever" may regret his behaviour when, many years later, he receives a letter from his former lover, asking for that very heart. She means it, too: "I guess you might not be aware that you're destined to die soon? Within the year? In a 'tragic', 'freak' accident, as it will be called?"

We are too casual with our hearts, and we don't pay enough attention to others': in "Strip Poker'" young Annislee, missing her adored but violent father, heads off with a group of boys for a shack in the woods. She underestimates her situation, and as the boys get drunker, they encourage her to take her clothes of in forfeit of the game. How she saves herself from being raped is by telling a story - not Ian McEwan-style, with the recitation of a Victorian poem but a tale about her daddy, serving time in a maximum security prison and just released. Who may have killed a man who harassed his daughter.

Oates likes to give these wayward but lonely girls a chance to get away, but in "Smother", Alva's "escape", through drugs and bad company, has only meant a twisting of her mother's heart. Alva is another girl who loves her daddy too much and never sees his faults; mother, instead, becomes the butt of her anger, and when Alva accuses her parents of the long-unsolved murder of a baby girl, it is mother who will suffer most. There is no escape for the mother who loves a daughter who doesn't love her back.

In "The Spill", a young girl marries a widower to get out of poverty and starts a family, but her husband's backward, unloved nephew, who has been handed over to them by his cold and disgusted mother, begins to look at his half-sisters in a way that Lizabeta doesn't like. She acts to save her wilful little girls, and sacrifices the boy to the elements.Love for some means death for others.

Hearts are "locked away", as well as broken and shattered. Hearts can "sink" or be given away. Like perverse fairytales, these are glimpses into the harm love does us all, whether it be familial love, sexual love, the love shown by a friend or a neighbour.

In the final story, "Vena Cava", love of one's country is a cruel trick played on those who go to fight. Everything about Dennie, the injured Lance Corporal back from Afghanistan, hints at his blue-collar background, from the Wal-Mart Christmas tree to the "sag-faced teary women in puff perms" who waved him off on his first tour of duty. That background made him vulnerable to recruitment, and now he's back in the former mining town where everybody tells him they love him. But their love can't save him.

As ever, Oates shows a perfect ear for everyday speech and the longings of people who might never have a chance. Crime doesn't have a monopoly on those who don't have very much, as the protagonists of "Give me your heart" and "Smother" show. The middle-classes are just as vulnerable to hate and anger.

But her sympathy for those mini-skirted, tough-talking girls who never seem to know just how much trouble they may be stirring up, or know but can't stop themselves, is shot through with class awareness and make these "tales of mystery and suspense' political tales, too.