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Mudwoman, By Joyce Carol Oates

A history of violence, seen through the cracks

Life is lonely at the top for MR Neukirchen, the conflicted protagonist of Joyce Carol Oates's latest novel. The first ever woman to be appointed president of an Ivy League College, MR finds that she takes little pleasure in her colonial-style new lodgings or fleet of assistants. She has few friends, and her married lover, an astronomy professor at Harvard, has started to overuse the phrase "I'm only leaving… so I can come back." Consumed by her work, she has a laptop permanently chained to her "like a colostomy bag."

It's while on a lecture trip that MR takes the uncharacteristic decision to slip away from her responsibilities. Setting out on a drive from her hotel, she realises that she's not far from the town where she grew up. Drawn to a stretch of dreary mudflats, she's suddenly assaulted by half-memories that rise up "like a narrow stream rushing through a crack in rock, enlarging the crack, to rush ever more swiftly…"

The horrors of an abusive childhood are familiar novelistic terrain, but Oates's idiosyncratic eye for unsettling detail makes us sit up. The traumas suffered by Meredith during her early years are truly flesh crawling. Finally dragged down to the Black Snake River by her religion-crazed mother, she's immersed in the mud, held down with a stick and left for dead. Forty years on, and MR is forced to square up to her singular past.

Mudwoman, like much of Oates's fiction, can feel unfashionably dense with characters and ideas. The novel's campus politics and cast of middle-aged academics are subtly drawn, but it's MR's struggle that keeps us turning the pages. Following her trip down memory lane, this respected and ever-anxious-to-please professional embarks on a path of dramatic self-sabotage – going AWOL from lectures, soiling her clothes and letting her sense and judgement slip.

Oates, now in her seventies and with more than 50 novels to her name, remains a creative powerhouse. This is an intriguing and bold novel about the flip side of success, and the consequences of sexual and psychological violence on the female psyche.