Black Girl, White Girl, by Joyce Carol Oates

From dream to disaster
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In this bold and distressing novel, Joyce Carol Oates subjects American race relations to her relentless scrutiny. She has done so before in her many novels, but never with such honesty and penetration. A tale of betrayal and betraying, Black Girl, White Girl is set in the mid-1970s on the campus of Schuyler, an East Coast women's college proud of its liberal traditions and scholarships for "people of colour". Genevra Meade, "well-behaved to the point of invisibility", is delighted to be placed with a black roommate, Minette Swift, and yearns to become her best friend.

Both are the daughters of powerful, charismatic fathers: the Rev Swift an eminent minister, the notorious Max Meade a brilliant defence lawyer of the radical left. He has represented anti-Vietnam protesters and Black Panthers, and is suspected of funding militant factions, for which he and Genna's mother, the drug-damaged and elusive Veronica, are under surveillance by the FBI.

The narrator is a middle-aged Genna, now a respected academic. She recalls her struggles to placate her roommate, who is contemptuous of her kind advances. Minette remains sullen and intimidating, universally disliked, especially by other black girls. A staunch Christian, she needs, she says, no one but Jesus.

Genna fears rejection and defends her bad behaviour. A grim companionship seems possible until Minette becomes the victim of a campaign of racial harassment, which ignites a media scandal and frantic investigations. Yet the criminal is never found, her identity the shared secret of the white and black girls.

Oates has written a nerve-wracking account of reverse racism born of white guilt. Minette's face is like an "idol", a black goddess whose wrath Genna dreads. Even the frightened faculty hurry to appease her, housing her in the distinguished visitors' cottage, where she perishes in a fire. Genna's confession as to what may have been her part in Minette's death is as much the story of Max's spectacular fall. Now in a high-security prison, his belligerence and ideals intact, he symbolises the collapse of America's dreams of liberation. The novel's sweltering intensity verges on the obsessive and, in another's hands, might seem grotesque. But Oates's literary passion and psychological acumen grip us, shake us, and convince.

Mary Flanagan's 'Adèle' is published by Bloomsbury