Robert Frost hated the idea ‘that you ought to read the whole of anybody’, though after finishing Joyce Carol Oates’s latest capacious novel, I might consider clearing a year and tackling her complete oeuvre. Coming to review Oates without ever having read her might seem reckless. Yet I am glad to have been introduced, through this novel about two very different American families standing on opposite sides of the pro-life versus pro-choice debate on women’s reproductive rights, to her uniquely sane, empathetic voice – one that seems particularly vital and timely during Trump’s presidency. Oates, a vastly prolific writer with over seventy books to her name, many of them weighing in at over five hundred pages, is in the grand Jamesian or Lawrentian tradition, where scale and amplification matter. Given the thematic multiplicity of A Book of American Martyrs – its major concerns include class, poverty, femininity, victimhood, gun violence, religious fundamentalism, moral absolutism and secular versus divine justice – the widest of canvases is more than justified.
From its dramatic opening, with the killing of an abortionist, Dr Gus Voorhees, by the right-wing Christian extremist Luther Dunphy, on the driveway of his Ohio clinic, the book rockets forward. The fallout from this initial shotgun blast, for both men’s families, is long and agonising. Gus’s wife, Jenna, abandons