Thursday, August 20, 2009

Little Bird of Heaven - Joyce Carol Oates

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-twentieth-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' son, Aaron, and Eddy Diehl's daughter, Krista, become obsessed with each other, 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.

Well love they tell me is a fragile thing
Its hard to fly on broken wings
I lost my ticket to the promised land
Little bird of heaven right here in my hand

So toss it up or pass it round
Pay no mind to what you're carryin' round
Or keep it close, hold it while you can
There's a little bird of heaven right here in your hand

Fallen hearts and fallen leaves
Starlings light on the broken trees
I find we all need a place to land
There's a little bird of heaven right here in your hand

Love is so beautiful and we hold it close to our heart, but when desire pushes love aside it can change everything we have ever known. Eddy Diehl learned this the hard way when his affair with Zoe Krueller turned him into a suspect for her murder. Delray Kruller learned this when his wife left him and many believed his jealousy and anger over her outwardly desires pushed him over the edge to commit the murder. Each man's life and that of his family is turned upside down when neither are fully accused, but neither are acquitted of the crime.

Krista Diehl is the storyteller of the first half of this book and tells it from the ages in which she is experiencing the drama. She has a fascination and a love for her father. His distance from her, and her difficulty in getting affection from him only makes that grow stronger. After he is kicked out of the house for the affair and possible murder, Krista spends much time obsessing over being with her father. She dreams of a father that will sweep her off her feet because of his love for her. Meanwhile, she develops a strong crush on the son of the murdered woman.

Aaron Kruller "Krull" has always had a difficult time in life. He is half Native American and matured much faster than the other kids around him. He has a mean streak and many kids and adults are afraid of him. After he finds his mother murdered, he takes on the cruel alter-ego of Krull for much of the time to get through the pain.

Krista and Aaron eventually come together as teenagers when he saves her from a deadly situation. However, his teenage anger and angst paired with his anger over Krista's father possibly murdering his mother leads him to treat her inappropriately as well. Krista has developed such a warped sense of love/desire/pain that she finds his harsh treatment of her exciting and sexually arousing.

Krista and Aaron do not connect with each other again for many years, but when they meet as adults find they are still suffering from the effects of their childhood.

The characters are very well developed and you can see in to the mind and heart of Krista and Aaron. You are even given glimpses of the family around them, especially their fathers and mothers. I found myself aching for them in many instances. Krista for her need to be loved and Aaron for how people misunderstand him.

I found this novel to be somewhat disturbing. The lines between cruelty and desire were very thin. I believe that both Aaron and Krista developed a warped sense of sexual attraction because of their circumstance. Krista sees Aaron as unattainable and overpowering. Many times this is also how she related with her father. Cruelty played a role in her loving relationship with her dad and she projected that relationship on to another outcast - Aaron. Aaron's mother left him to follow her dreams and his father was a somewhat abusive alcoholic. Aaron used cruelty to separate himself and maintain control. He also keep surface level relationships with women. After having his mother leave him as a child I think he felt a fear in committing to love another woman. Though the actions were disturbing in the novel I think they appropriately depicted the aftermath of families torn apart by a horrific crime. And, the actions of those who have seen desire pushed ahead of love and commitment.

It took me awhile to get through Little Bird of Heaven. This novel was written with such depth that it took time to really read each page and think about it. I enjoyed it, but sometimes it was almost exhausting. Everything these families were going through jumped off the page at me. I was an outsider looking in on their life and I was consumed by the odd paths each person chose to take. I ached for Krista when she was unable to see her father in his true light. I ached for her father Eddy, because he loved his family very much. He became obsessed with winning them back and lost sight of the love he felt for them. Aaron was the by-product of a distant mother and father. He grew up quickly, and he never dealt with seeing his mother murdered. His mother Zoe had two sides - loving mother and caged bird longing to be freed. Each character held so much in and let it consume them.

Read this novel, but be ready to set aside time for it. You won't be able to walk away until it is done, but you will find you have to put it to the side to breathe in your "ordinary" life and appreciate it.


  1. Terrific review and so thorough. I have this one on my shelves and I'm looking forward to reading it.

  2. What an excellent review. This is one that I jotted down recently for future consideration...thanks

  3. I just finished reading and reviewing this book, and found your thoughts very similar to my own. I also found I had to step away from the book from time to time...for a breather, as you say. It was so intensely powerful and disturbing at times, and I had to keep plodding along to finish it.

    My review is at CURL UP AND READ,

  4. I absolutely love Martha Scanlan much like my dog loves used paper towels; simply irresistible. Martha, if you use that idea in a song then i expect a personal thank you.