Mother, Missing by Joyce Carol Oates

The exposing of the American dream as one saturated in violence has often been regarded as the prime motivation of her work, and women are the victims of that violence. Whether she tackles domestic abuse, murder or rape (the latter figuring in both We Were the Mulvaneys and her last novella, Rape: A Love Story), the feminism of her message is clear: women suffer, and in abominable ways.

Except that, lately, Oates has been softening that message with a romantic overtone. Rape: A Love Story conflates two genres, romance and crime, as does this latest novel. Mother, Missing is told from the point of view of rebel daughter Nikki as she turns up reluctantly for Mother's Day. Her father has been dead for four years, her sister, Clare, is married to Rob and they have two children, and her mother, to camouflage her loneliness, has invited all of them, as well as neighbours, friends and a pest exterminator called to the house the day before, for the Mother's Day celebrations.

Nikki's voice is an odd combination of first-person observational and third person literary, so that she speaks both colloquially ("Damned if I wanted to meet him") and like a book ("I was bringing Mom a present so soft, so gossamer light it seemed to have no weight but lay across my outstretched arms like something sleeping"). You want to know why this woman has such an odd voice, at one moment full of clichés, the next exploring strange new metaphors; it turns out that the day is being recalled for us, just before the trauma of her mother's murder.

Nikki's relationship with a married-but-separated older man, Wally Szalla, seems to rally at first under the pressure of losing her mother so brutally, but it isn't strong enough to withstand the strain. Neither, it would appear, is her sister's more conventional set-up, and she soon leaves her husband. Meanwhile, the detective leading the investigation, Ross Strabane, almost a caricature of the butch, burly hero of latterday Mills & Boon romances, offers both emotional as well as professional assistance.

It's hard to know what Oates is up to - whether she has just entered a conservative phase or is playing some postmodern game. Realism has always been Oates's strength; why would a realist want a make-believe, Sleeping-Beauty-gets-her-prince type of ending? Cultural commentators may want to opt for a pat explanation, that post-9/11 catch-all that says America doesn't want to examine a dark side any more.

Perhaps Oates is simply less disillusioned with the world than she was. Not so much that she will erase the violence from the heart of her books, as it is not erased from the heart of the world, but enough to offer a happier ending. Then again, perhaps in offering us a story-book ending she is simply playing up the fictional aspect of it all. No, she tells us sombrely, the world is a bad place and there is no comfort to be had. The only comfort is to be found in the pages of a book.