book review: The Sacrifice

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The Sacrifice By Joyce Carol Oates.
Ecco| January 2015.|320 pages |$26.99 ISBN: 978-006-233-2974

rating: 2.5/5*

This is a follow-up to her National Book Award-winning 1969 novel them. Written the year I was born, I have yet to read it. Not sure the delay in writing or publishing The Sacrifice if it is a follow-up to a novel from 40 years ago. Did she write this novel some time ago but not publish it. Was the timing off. Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific author of 40 novels and numerous short-story collections. The Sacrifice is a timely novel about race, abuse of power, corruption, public perception and manipulation. However, it just came across as dated to me and it also took me an outrageous three weeks to read. And not due to its length—one of Joyce Carol Oates shorter novels at 300 pages– or due to its dense material. She writes from various perspectives, shuffles layers and mystery,provides details into the young woman’s background and then illustrates the hype surrounding this did-it-or-didn’t-it-happen case.

I felt it was a tale already told. I finally realized it was based on the 1987 case of Tawney Brawley. I was in high school or just beginning college when that case happened so I didn’t immediately recall it. This was pre-Twitter, pre-internet, pre-mobile blitz. Some fictionalizations of real-life events work and some do not. This isn’t the first time for Joyce Carol Oates to turn a real-life event into a novel. The most powerful and creepy is Black Water which imagines Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick.

In The Sacrifice a poor black teen claims rape, under dubious circumstances, and when a high-profile reverend and his attorney brother get involved the lines blur. In swoops an Al Sharpton doppelgänger Rev. Marus Mudrick –“in his signature three-piece suit with a flowing necktie, sternly smiling, vibrant and alert, exuding strength, masculinity, Christian resolution”–and his twin lawyer brother Byron, a hard-working, civil rights attorney who eschews the spotlight. The duo complicates matters by adding to the confusion, suggesting possible suspects and promising a better and more interesting life to the teen and her mother.

Of course anyone who claims rape has a reason to do so and Oates delves into that a bit. She wonders why a young woman would fabricate a story as many start to indicate. Sybilla Frye is found hogtied, scrawled with racial slurs and smeared with dog feces in an abandoned basement. She says that a group of men led by a “yellow-haired” man, raped and beat her but she won’t submit to a rape test and is a difficult interview for the police. Is Sybilla lying or so deeply traumatized from sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather—ex-con Anis Schutt–that she believes this truly occurred: “They had white faces and one of them a badge like a cop would wear or a state trooper and they had guns an one of them, he put that gun barrel up inside me and it hurt so bad I was crying so bad they said Nigra cunt you stop that bawlin, we gon pull this trigger an all yo’ insides gon come splashin out your ugly nappy head.” Understandably this teenager and her mother, Ednetta, do not trust the police. Not many young black women would.

They don’t even trust or dare confide in a Hispanic female police officer– a young woman who has her own issues regarding fair treatment by the police department. Oates writes: “Iglesias did not check black when filling out appropriate official forms, Iglesias did not think of herself as a person of color though she acknowledged, seeing herself in reflective surfaces beside those colleagues of hers who were white, that she might’ve been, to the superficial eye, a light-skinned Hispanic.”

The introduction of this female police officer captivated me but unfortunately she’s jettisoned out of the novel far too soon. Here’s a strong WOC. A strong woman in a position of power. Inis Iglesias: “Her life had been, since adolescence, an effort to overcome the crude perimeters of identity. Her skin-color, ethnic background, gender. I am so much more than the person you see. Give me a chance.” That this character wasn’t allowed a chance fits in with the cruelties Oates outlines throughout the novel. I’d like to read a novel on the Inis Iglesias experience.

Describing the poor New Jersey neighborhood in which the Fryes inhabit and piecing together how Sybilla got from there to her present situation works. Oates does an impressive job in etching out that picture. The Princeton professor knows New Jersey. “The Fryes lived on Third Street, in that run-down neighborhood by the river. Abandoned factories, shuttered and part-burned houses, streets clogged with abandoned and rusting vehicles. Pascayne South High, lowest-ranked in the city. The fifth precinct, with the highest crime rate. You had to grow up swiftly there.”

Solid attempt but not quite powerful enough to succeed. Given the racial tensions throughout the nation seems perfect timing for this novel. I wonder if Oates wrote this years ago and didn’t publish until now as it’s simultaneously dated and relevant. I cannot recommend The Sacrifice.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco/Harper Collins.

purchase The Sacrifice

purchase at Amazon: The Sacrifice: A Novel

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