Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Tattoed Girl By Joyce Carol Oates

Joshua Siegl is a respected novelist and scholar.  He made his reputation early with the publication of an acclaimed novel that wrote about the Holocaust, and which was based on his grandparents' experience with the death camps.  Although Joshua is young, still in his 30's, he has found himself becoming more and more of a recluse.  Fiercely independent, he has few outside relationships and lives alone.

Alma Busch is quite different.  A poorly educated woman from a poor family, Alma has made her way through life, often by depending on men.  These men, who she always believes love her, end up treating her badly.  She has been prostituted by them and forced to write bad checks or steal.  In a stunning episode, she was imprisoned in a motel room by a gang of men, raped and then tattooed by them on her face, back and hands.  She drifts from man to man and job to job, never finding human validation.

Everything changes for both of these people when Joshua is diagnosed with a progressive nerve disease.  He at first refuses to admit this is happening, but as the weeks go by and he starts to lose functioning of his body, he realises he will need to have some help.  Still shunning from public disclosure of his condition, he meets Alma in a restaurant and impulsively offers her a job as a live-in assistant. 

Thus begins their strange relationship.  Joshua sees Alma as a project of sorts, as he wants to help her gain Independence and education.  He begins to depend more and more on her help.  She helps him get around, organizes his scholarly papers, and takes over the organization of the house. 

Alma sees Joshua as different things.  She doesn't understand his world, and is filled with contempt that he spends so much money on things that she could do for him.  Slowly, she takes over these things like cleaning his clothes, cleaning the house, etc.  She loves him at times, and is filled with hate for him at others.  Unused to decent treatment from men, she has been conditioned to see this kind of treatment as weakness.  Over time they develop an uneasy relationship that has each dependant on the other for their lives going forward. 

Joyce Carol Oates, who is a prolific writer, has created a chilling portrait in this book.  It is unclear throughout where the reader's sympathies should lie, with Joshua or Alma.  Is he saving her or condescending to her?  Is she helping him, or making him dependant on him for a unsavory reason?  The reader will be compelled to read to the end to discover what happens in this relationship, and who will emerge as the winner in the battle of wills.  This book is recommended for all readers.

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