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This book is a compilation of pieces, most of which have already appeared in various publications. The author describes it as “a writer’s coming of age”.
At the beginning of the book she makes this statement: “We begin as children imagining and fearing ghosts. By degrees, through our long lives, we come to be the very ghosts inhabiting the lost landscapes of our childhood.”
It’s not a linear progression of memory, so it does not fit neatly into what we expect of a memoir, and because it’s a collection, or at least I imagine that this is the reason, there is quite a lot of repetition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and even occasionally serves to reinforce some aspects of Oates’ early life – particularly her relationship with her stern Hungarian grandparents.
Some of the pieces are a tad too whimsical, in particular the one written from the viewpoint of one of the chickens. Others hint at the much darker side of life that Oates experienced growing up in a small town in New York state. Life in the 1940s and 1950s in rural America was not easy and the differences observed and described between wealthy and poor families, the somewhat awkward and unbalanced relationship between Oates and some of her schoolmates, and the descriptions of what we would now term dysfunctional families are quite telling. You get a feel for the kind of life she had without her having to spell it all out in detail.
The book covers a huge amount of ground, and I think brings together many of the events and memories which have shaped Joyce Carol Oates as a writer. She clearly wrote from an early age, and was a voracious reader. The detail she applies in description, along with wonderful use of language generally, makes this collection interesting reading.
I wanted it to be more cohesive than it is, but overall found it a satisfying read, and I think now I may go and try something else by her.
Reviewed by Sue Esterman
The Lost Landscape
by Joyce Carol Oates
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd