Breathe

Joyce Carol Oates

Fiction 2021 | 365 pages

four-hearts

Astonishing.  I find this book astonishing.  I SHOULD give it three hearts, because it is clearly not for everyone who reads my blog ... but I cannot begin to tell who will love this book and who will hate it.  I inhaled it.

There is essentially no plot.  It is the story of Michaela as her husband dies in the first section, "The Vigil" and after his death, "The Post-Mortem."  Michaela and Gerard have traveled from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Santa Tierra, New Mexico, where Gerard, a distinguished academician, researcher, and professor at Harvard, accepts a guest position at the Santa Tierra Institute for Advanced Research.  While in New Mexico, Gerard is suddenly taken seriously ill, and he dies a few weeks later in New Mexico.

We witness the vigil, his death, and the early stages of widowhood side by side with Michaela, far from home and yet unable to convey herself back to Cambridge.  Reviewers describe this novel as "searing,” “disturbing,” “sad,” “chilling,” and “mesmerizing.”

What we read is an unadulterated view of intense, inexplicable, debilitating grief.  We observe as Michaela experiences and expresses her grief, but also as she loses touch with reality, and has delusions and hallucinations.  We see her physically and emotionally fall apart, unable to shower, sleeping in her clothes on top of the bed. She is buffeted by disturbing images of gods and "prank gods" associated with the ancient indigenous culture she is thrust into in this part of the country.

I experienced Oates' writing in this novel as some of the best I have ever read.  Illustrative, powerful, it has a cadence and a turn of words that I found continually drew me on to the next sentence and the next chapter.  I randomly opened to a page just now, and will share an example: “That bed – where had she seen that bed before?  Something terrifying about that (empty, stripped) bed.  Something terrifying about (re)entering this room and seeing that she was alone in this room.  For the first time, alone in this room.” (page 148).

Of course, my post would be incomplete and inauthentic if I did not report on how it affects me personally, 5.5 years a widow myself.  Yes, it draws me back into memories of Beryl and his dying.  I found Michaela’s heart-wrenching descriptions of both sorrows and delusions to be totally believable.  Her tale resonates deeply with me.

So, you must decide if you want to take on such a disturbing text as this.  I recommend you do.  I will love to hear from those you who read Breathe.  I am carrying the aura and the tenor of this book with me still.

January, 2022

 

 

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