BOOK REVIEW / Flame-red hair and a rush to nowhere: I lock my door upon myself - Joyce Carol Oates: Blackstaff, pounds 6.95

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IT IS hard to think of a more ambitious or prolific writer than Joyce Carol Oates. Her astonishing output includes several excursions into American Gothic; a novel called American Appetites; and now an American romance - romance not in a picturesque or flashy sense, but as purely elemental as she can make it. I Lock My Door Upon Myself is, unusually for Oates, no more than novella-length (98 pages). It is the story of Calla Honeystone, the narrator's grandmother - 'but not my grandmother in any terms I can comprehend' - born in 1890, married at 17, and fated to spend 55 years in a state of virtual withdrawal.

Calla's single trait is intractability. As a tall, striking young girl with flame-red hair and a habit of running off to a derelict farmhouse, the motherless Calla doesn't fit in with her relatives' ideas of deportment. They marry her off to a man more than twice her age, a mass of physical imperfections and clumsy to boot. But Calla is not to be shaken by the 'grim nightly grappling' that ensues. Neither marriage nor motherhood domesticates her, and when a handsome black water-diviner appears on the scene her life assumes its preordained, highly-charged form.

This book is a celebration of waywardness and ferocious integrity pushed to an extreme. There is the moment of stark drama, and then the years of stagnation behind a locked door, while the century 'rushed headlong as over a series of cataracts into its future of wars, financial collapse, boom times, new presidents of the United States, and new wars'. The headlong rush and the headstrong temperament are the pungent ingredients out of which Joyce Carol Oates has shaped this vibrant piece of fiction.

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