Review: Rape a Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates

I've often heard the expression never judge a book by its cover, but in this particular instance, never judge a book by its title may be apt. There is no denying one thing. That title is confronting. Over the years, I've occasionally seen it used by critics to pull the author down a peg or two, usually when they are criticising one of her other works. And it's probably not the best reflection of what the book is about.

This 154 page novella tells the story of Teena Maguire, an adult woman who is gang raped by a group of thugs while her twelve-year-old daughter Bethyl watches, frightened and helpless. Teena is left on the floor of a boat shed to die, but the intervention of Bethyl and the police officer that arrives on the scene ensures that she receives medical attention. And then comes the emotionally confronting or perhaps even crushing, aftermath.

Author Joyce Carol Oates tells it like it is, showing in detail the fallout. There is cruel gossip from the neighbours, a failure to believe that the young men who are arrested and charged could possibly be guilty and a court hearing, where a slick lawyer turns the tables on Teena, essentially putting her, and her credibility on trial instead of his clients. Sadly, much of this reflects the true experiences of survivors of sexual assault. However, in this fictional world, Oates offers us a hero in the form of a rogue police officer who wants to see justice play out for Teena Maguire. His methods are tough, far from legal but strangely effective. And that, I suspect is where the second part of the title comes from.

This is a confronting read, sadly realistic and reflective of the attitude toward survivors of sexual assault even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. The short chapters work perfectly, stopping parts of the story from going over the top in some places, and giving readers just enough information without being too graphic in others. Definitely not a book for a faint of heart, this is a story about an amazingly strong woman, the people who tried to break her and those who loved her the most.



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