This book of four novellas is about women, about what it is like to be a woman, though sometimes through extreme examples. It is not always a pleasant book. Cardiff, by the Sea shows us the worst, most devastating things about being a woman – as well as the exquisite moments of joy that can pop up in between. I’d never read Joyce Carol Oates before this, but I will certainly be reading more of her work.
The first story, which has the same title as the book, introduces us to Clare, a lonely young woman who lives a very careful, planned life that is disrupted when she decides to answer the phone one day without looking at the caller ID. The caller is a lawyer, informing her that her grandmother has died and left her a house in Cardiff, Maine; except Clare was adopted and does not know this grandmother, let alone the house. Here and throughout, there is an immediate, dramatic style with short, sharp sentences that show us Clare’s thought patterns and perspective.
Clare travels to Maine to meet her two aunts, older sisters of her possibly dead father. They talk over each other and finish each other’s sentences, speaking in such a flurry of thoughts that you can feel how overwhelming they would be. There is also her uncle Gerard, who lives at the top of the house and does not try to engage with Clare at all. The descriptions of Gerard and his almost non-presence early in the story are exceptional – initially you are not sure if he is even really there or if Clare is imagining another person being in the room.
As Clare learns more about her biological family there are fascinating and completely heartbreaking explorations of heritage and legacy, as well as memory. Clare has chosen to remember or forget certain things, even if she is not initially aware of this. Oates brilliantly explores Clare’s feelings about having been adopted and her sense of shame, partly inherited from her adoptive parents and partly from the idea that she was unwanted and abandoned. We are made to consider the effect of the phrase “given up for adoption” which appears throughout as if to make a certain point – it perhaps implies (to Clare) that she was literally “given up”, i.e. either someone “gave up” on her, or she was “given” away. The fact that she discovers living family members adds to the feeling of abandonment and her question of why nobody seemed to want her. Likewise as she speaks to people in Cardiff (and is shunned by her mother’s family when they think she is only a relative of her father, as she presents herself) her feeling that she was unwanted only grows.
It is difficult to explore more of the story here without telling what is revealed, but once the truth begins to unfold, we see that Clare’s whole life has been directed by other people’s refusal to deal with their own emotions and to open their hearts to her, and that the question of whether she was abandoned or given away is not really answered neatly with a yes or a no. The ending of the story is also quite ambiguous. Perhaps Oates is just emphasising the random and unknowable nature of events in our life and how they can either be completely out of our control, or controlled by small random decisions. Even someone like Clare, who lives a very careful, intentional life, does not really have any control over the circumstances of her birth, her family (biological and adopted), other people’s choices, or the consequences of any of her own choices. On reflection I think this particular story is less about being a woman and more about being a child, even as we grow up; though at the same time I think it’s interesting to consider if Clare would have had the same life had she not been a woman.
In the next story, “Miao Dao”, Oates again uses dramatic and intense language to quickly and effectively create atmosphere and introduce us to our main character, the pre-teenage Mia, suffering through her parents’ divorce. The story cover several years and there are brilliant, subtle changes in Mia’s perception of her family as she gets older and gains more understanding. There are strong, stereotyped gender roles – except for Mia. She is the only one who seems to notice these and to rebel against or actively dislike them. Her parents fulfil the worst cliches – the absent father intensely judging his daughter, his love conditional on her fulfilling his ideas of what she should be, along with his rejection of his wife; and the abandoned mother who becomes increasingly bitter, “man-hating”, desperate, and distant. The teenage boys at Mia’s school are the worst of their kind, completely fulfilling negative stereotypes of men harassing women. Mia makes insightful comparisons between herself and the other girls at school – some who are fearful and repulsed as she is, and some who welcome the attention but then recoil when the boys become increasingly vulgar or threatening.
There are also the feral cats that live in an empty lot behind Mia’s house, who play a very interesting role. I loved the witchy element of Mia’s connection with them. They are a symbol of femininity and sexuality but also of the wildness of Mia’s feelings and the wildness of her situation – that feel of insecurity, risk, vulnerability, physical and emotional danger, abandonment, loneliness, fear, and the hatred toward and from others. This is especially highlighted in her father’s particular disdain for them. She empathises with them and sees a similarity in their predicaments; and there is also her yearning for some kind of friend or companion. She seeks them out when she feels particularly alone.
And lastly there is her mother’s new boyfriend, who quickly moves in and becomes a husband. He is the classic imposter, an interloper into the home in the guise of the father-figure. It is a cruel trick for Mia – she is initially suspicious and reluctant, but her deep desire for a happy family leads her to trust and almost like him, to open her heart a little. But it all insidiously turns against her, and the true nastiness of the man is revealed. It is a hellish, nightmarish, horribly inevitable path. Mia’s anger and disdain overtake her fear and she rises above her vulnerability when she laughs at him – a very powerful moment. Oates sees that the real power of the woman is to shame and laugh at the sexually aggressive man. This is what these men are afraid of. When Mia attains this power, she begins to fulfil the female revenge fantasy against the men in her life, which reaches a dramatic conclusion at the end of the story (which I won’t give away). She becomes a manifestation of all harassed, objectified, abused, humiliated women with broken hearts who wish their own pain on those that hurt them.
The third story, “Phantomwise: 1972”, is a little different. In some ways it’s less dramatic than “Miao Dao” and “Cardiff, by the Sea”, but this does not reduce its power. Alyce is a student who sleeps with one of her lecturers, a young charming philosopher, and becomes pregnant. She keeps this a secret, and in her desperation wonders how she will get rid of it – this is just before Roe v. Wade, so there is no legal abortion in the US. Alyce considers throwing herself down the stairs, taking pills, or just killing herself altogether. These thoughts undercut her day-to-day life at the university in stark contrast, but one that may be familiar to many women in some way – fear and anxiety about reproductive health issues running in the background of our minds. She considers the unfairness of her situation, the horror of it, the feelings of regret.
Soon Alyce becomes an assistant to an older professor, a famous poet visiting the university. They spend more and more time together, and you consider if their father-daughter type relationship might actually be something different from his perspective. Alyce is still pregnant, and wondering what to do and what to tell the philosopher, Simon, as he doesn’t seem interested in her anymore. He is in the background for most of the story, emphasising his keeping Alyce at arm’s length. She is buffeted between these two men, of different generations and types, neither of whom seem threatening at first, but there are touches of danger. Simon’s treatment of Alyce is callous and calculating, and you wonder what he is capable of if he can treat her this way; while the professor is overly nice and hospitable, eventually making Alyce wonder if at some point she might be blindsided by a clumsy – or calculated – advance.
I found this story to be much more nuanced, banal, and subtle than the previous one, with less drama and a slower pace. We spend quite a lot of time with Alyce and the professor as they sort his papers and talk about life, always followed up with a drink (which brings anxiety for Alyce). But having read the previous two stories you can’t help but wonder if something more eventful (and tragic) is around the corner – what is Alyce going to do about the pregnancy? Will she survive a homemade attempt at an abortion, or will she have to have the child and being a single parent? Or, perhaps the deeper fear, will one of these two men try to further overpower her? In many ways she is under their control and subject to their whims, even if she does not want to be. Again we have an example of what it is like to be a woman, to have your life unintentionally controlled by someone else, some man.
The last story, “The Surviving Child”, is again quite different. Here we have Elisabeth, newly married to the widowed Alexander. In a strange parallel of Rebecca, Elisabeth’s marriage is often overshadowed by the deceased wife, a radical poet known as N.K. This time however there is also a child, Stefan, who appears traumatised and with whom Elisabeth desperately tries to connect as Alexander spends more and more time away with his work. Like the new Mrs de Winter, Elisabeth becomes obsessed with N.K., secretly reading her work and journals and trying to learn more about her life, against the wishes of her husband. From the start we learn that N.K. killed both herself and their younger daughter, and possibly tried to kill Stefan, all with fumes from a car in the garage. The tragedy, strangeness, and mystery of the whole incident are irresistible to Elisabeth. Alexander’s disdain for N.K., in life and death, only drives Elisabeth’s curiosity. As with Rebecca, we can’t help but compare the two women and Elisabeth herself philosophises on the merits of their different behaviour. She considers what it means to be a wife, a mother, to have success and fulfilment. As we learn about these two women, I suppose we are faced with that terrible question of women trying to “have it all”, and the fact that we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. N.K. is demonised by Alexander, but Elisabeth begins to question her husband as she learns more about the deceased wife, and is troubled by the ethical issues. Should she condemn this woman, whom she never met, for harming her children and traumatising everyone? Or should she sympathise with the suffering of a woman trapped in her domestic situation, fighting against the constraints on her life to be free – physically, mentally, creatively, and spiritually. N.K.’s reaction to these things is extreme, but this can be viewed in a similar way to Mia enacting the female revenge fantasy in “Miao Dao”, taking the angriest and most resentful of feelings to the nth degree.
There are also suggestions of a supernatural element to this story, which is something that all four stories have in common, in some small way. In all of them there are moments where we question what is real, whether some things are imagined by our heroines or whether they are really happening. All four stories centre around trauma in their own way, and I think this otherworldly element could be Oates’ way of exploring the effects of trauma and how our base instincts can kick in at these times, and weight detach from reality. In the last story Elisabeth is at first shocked by N.K., but as she becomes more disconnected from Alexander, she sees that it’s not as simple as it seems and that sometimes these more extreme actions might be the only way you can take some sort of control.
Control is a recurring theme in the four stories of Cardiff, by the Sea. The four central characters have hardly any control over their lives, in the end, and I think this is the lot of many women in some way. No matter the progress of feminism, women’s lives are still controlled externally – by expectations, societal pressures, parental obligations, and, ultimately, men. Men, because we still live in a patriarchal society, and so our social expectations come from that context. No one ever discusses men trying to have it all.
I read this book in February and March this year, finishing it around the time Sarah Everard was in the news. I felt completely defeated by this battle, completely fed up at the cruelty of women’s lot in society. But I also felt the anger of Mia and N.K., the slow defiance of Elisabeth, as well as the sadness and bewilderment of Clare and Alyce. There is no one answer to these problems. As with so many issues like this, of rights, prejudice, and hate, as individuals we must fight in the small ways available to us. I think Cardiff, by the Sea is part of Joyce Carol Oates’ contribution to this fight, and it is an effective one. So often books like this are just recommended to women, but surely the point is that everyone should read this, whatever their gender. As I said it’s not always a pleasant book, not always easy, but it is brilliant, searing, and I thought it was wonderful. Everyone should read it, and everyone should consider what it is trying to say, what it wants, and go out and enact those principles in the world. Being a woman is not easy, but it can be wonderful, and it is worth the fight.
Published in 2020 by Head of Zeus in the UK (hardback pictured above), and Mysterious Press in the US.