Joyce Carol Oates returns with a dark, romantic, and captivating tale, set in the Great Lakes region of upstate New York—the territory of her remarkably successful New York Times bestseller The Gravedigger’s Daughter.
Set in the mythical small city of Sparta, New York, this searing, vividly rendered exploration of the mysterious conjunction of erotic romance and tragic violence in late 20th-century America returns to the emotional and geographical terrain of acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates’s previous bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys and The Gravedigger’s Daughter.
When a young wife and mother named Zoe Kruller is found brutally murdered, the Sparta police target two primary suspects, her estranged husband Delray Kruller and her longtime lover Eddy Diehl. In turn, the Krullers’s son Aaron and Eddy Diehl’s daughter Krista become obsessed with one another, each believing the other’s father is guilty.
Told in halves in the very different voices of Krista and Aaron, Little Bird of Heaven is a classic Oates novel in which the lyricism of intense sexual love is intertwined with the anguish of loss, and tenderness is barely distinguishable from cruelty. By the novel’s end, the fated lovers, meeting again as adults, are at last ready to exorcise the ghosts of the past and come to terms with their legacy of guilt, misplaced love, and redemptive yearning.
He would say I am innocnet you know that don’t you?
And I would say Yes Daddy.
But it was never enough of course. The fervent belief, the unquestioning love of a child for her father—this may be precious to the father but it can’t ever be enough for him.
To claim—to claim repeatedly—that you are innocent of what is claimed by others that you have done, or might have done, or are in some quarters strongly suspected of having done, is never enough unless others, numerous others, will say it for you.
Unless you are publicly vindicated of whatever it is you have been strongly suspected of doing, it can’t be enough.
… you know that darling don’t you? You and your brother? You and your brother and your mother have got to know that don’t you?
- IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2011 Shortlist
Well love they say is a fragile thing
It’s hard to fly on broken wings
I lost my ticket to the promised land
Little bird of heaven right here in my hand.
“Little Bird of Heaven,”
performed by Reeltime Travelers
Reeltime Travelers perform “Little Bird of Heaven”
Donna Seaman, Booklist, June 1, 2009, p. 5
“In this narcotic, unnerving, brilliantly composed tale of the struggle for control over the body’s archaic urges, and the quest for morality in a catastrophically corrupted world, Oates creates magnetic characters of heightened awareness and staggering valor. As these sensitive stalwarts fight soul-strangling poverty, hate, crime, despair, and malignant desire, Oates captures with eviscerating precision the used-up, maligned, yet persistent beauty and spirit of stricken rural America, retaining her title as our great and tireless bard of erotic mayhem, malevolent dereliction, delirious anger, impassioned violence, and ferocious strategies of survival.”
Michael Lindgren, Washington Post, September 16, 2009
“This is a powerful novel. Oates’s feel for the rhythms of hardscrabble life and its sour mix of alcoholism, suicide, drug abuse, adultery and murder is as keen as ever. In Sparta she has created a fictional universe to stand beside Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Cheever’s Shady Hill. Her descriptions of the geography of urban decay—the rusted bridges, tangled back alleys and trash-strewn lots—are as vivid as any naturalist’s portrayal of more felicitous scenes. Her unsentimental language makes a high-lonesome kind of poetry out of otherwise sordid and unremarkable circumstance.”
Publishers Weekly, July 20, 2009, p. 116
“Oates unfolds the central gothic intuition—that beauty and the beast are complements—in a way that Charlotte Brontë would highly approve.”
Corrie Pikul, Elle, August 13, 2009
Oates has a special knack for evoking the intense eroticism of adolescence, and the dangerous attraction here between a tentative daddy’s girl and an old-for-his-age bad boy is reminiscent of her famous story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
Mary Wisniewski, Chicago Sun-Times, September 13, 2009, p. D16
“Oates is a terrifyingly muscular writer. She takes readers by the neck and forces them to look, look at these people, see their sorrow and their fear. She is the Rembrandt of fiction, showing reality with all its wrinkles and moles and shafts of unexpected light.”
Dale Singer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 13, 2009
But with Oates, no narrative could be a straight detective story. The interior monologues of Krista and Aaron, in their respective portions of the book, show the novelist at her brooding best.
Dan Scheraga, Associated Press, September 14, 2009
“… quintessential Joyce Carol Oates: an expertly crafted, lovingly detailed character-driven novel of loss and longing. She is adept at getting into the skin of her characters and illustrating their motivations and desires, even when they aren’t fully understood by the characters themselves.”
Jennifer Latson, Houston Chronicle, September 18, 2009
“The gems that punctuate Oates’ bleak story line are her brilliant turns of phrase, mournful and foreboding as they may be.”
Malena Watrous, New York Times Book Review, September 20, 2009, p. 10
“‘Little Bird of Heaven’ starts with the urgency of a thriller, then turns into something more existential as the years (and pages) go by with no developments in the case. This is a tragedy on a classical scale.”
Nancy Fontaine, BookPage, September 2009
Little Bird of Heaven is classic Oates. Its depiction of violence, families falling from grace and social class disparities, as well as its location, recall her 1996 bestseller, We Were the Mulvaneys. Fans of Oates will delight in this offering and newcomers to her work will receive a first-class introduction.
Michael Arditti, The Telegraph, January 9, 2010
But the novel’s greatest achievement lies in its portrait of the children as they are forced to come to terms first with their elders’ sexuality and then with their own.
Josh Cohen, Library Journal, September 15, 2009
Image: “Cappy Cardinal” by Matt