A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates, book review: It’s perhaps not the novel about the abortion debate some might have been hoping for

Joyce Carol Oates tackles America's abortion war in her new novel with a magnificent story about two broken families 

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The Independent Culture

Luther Dunphy, with “the ecstasy of the Lord coursing through [his] arms and hands like electricity”, guns down abortion provider Dr Gus Voorhees outside the Ohio women’s centre where he works. The only common ground between murderer and victim is the vehemence with which they hold their principles, Voorhees’s secular calling – he’s “afflicted with the sort of blindness that some religious visionaries are afflicted,” observes a perceptive friend – to save the lives of the women and girls who seek his help, just as devout as Luther’s belief that he’s saving the lives of unborn innocents.

Oates is too smart to attempt to reconcile these dramatically opposing positions, thankfully steering clear of such glibness. Instead of dealing in didacticism, A Book of American Martyrs examines the consequences of choice in all its manifestations, and as such, although it’s perhaps not the novel about the abortion debate some might have been hoping for, this doesn’t detract from the magnificent story it does tell: one of two “broken” families steeped in grief. As Luther’s wife Edna Mae puts it: “There are many lives that are ended when a man is a soldier for Christ – not just the abortion doctors’ lives.” Voorhees’s murder takes place in the first chapter; the 700-odd pages that follow depict the aftermath.

As the narrative progresses – Oates dynamically switching from first to third person narration and back again, energetically jumping between the interior monologues of different characters – she focuses in on Voorhees’s daughter Naomi, who grows up to be a documentary filmmaker curating an archive of her father’s life, and her counterpart, Luther’s daughter Dawn, who, after being abused and tormented at school, becomes a champion boxer known as “The Hammer of Jesus”.

Stereotypes aside – the Dunphys are ill educated and poor, while the Voorhees family bears all the hallmarks of liberal privilege – Oates is an egalitarian, respecting each and every one of her characters, even when she doesn’t agree with their beliefs. The forays into Luther’s mind provide the most unsettling sections, more so even than Edna Mae’s gruesome dumpster-diving for medical waste that she and the other “Operation Rescue” zealots insist on recovering for Christian burials.  

A pro-choice argument is woven in between the lines – “Always a woman is happy, a baby in her arms,” says the blinkered Luther, meanwhile every mother in the novel abandons or neglects her children – but it’s not black and white. “I have told you a lengthy story in the hope that you might see a perspective not naturally your own,” Voorhees’s mother Madelena tells him in a line that could well be Oates herself describing this novel.

Had it been an option, Madelena admits that she would have aborted him, as should have been her choice, Voohees replies, but no, he’s missing the point, she explains: “You are precious to me, you have acquired responsibility and stature in the world and have done inestimable good for many others.” It’s here, not in Luther’s sanctimonious tunnel vision, that we approach the knotty heart of the matter.

‘A Book of American Martyrs’ by Joyce Carol Oates is published by Fourth Estate, £16.99

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