Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Books I've Read: Babysitter


This one is a tough one to write about.  While I would generally call myself a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates' writing, I really couldn't get into this particular book.

Set in 1977 Detroit, Hannah is an upper-middle-class wife and mother whose husband is largely inattentive, and whose children are largely taken care of by their live-in Fillippino housekeeper.  She is on various boards and committees and it is at a fundraiser for one of these that she comes into contact with YK, a man who brushes her wrist and makes her feel both seen and desired in a way she hasn't been before.

It isn't long before Hannah is heading to YK's hotel, knowing what it is she's going for, but unable to reconcile the fact she is walking toward an affair.  This person is not who she sees herself as, but as the book progresses, it is increasingly difficult to see exactly how Hannah sees herself - or even if she sees herself at all.

When Hannah's timid assignations with YK turn violent, she hides her bruises, washes away the evidence and gets on with her life.  She tells herself she'll refuse YK's next invitation, but she doesn't and this rendez-vous is more brutal than the last - so much so that she can't hide the results from her husband.  He's convinced it has to have been a Black man who did it, and Hannah allows him to believe this rather than admitting to her affair.

In the background of this tawdry little affair is the story on the news; a serial killer is picking off young boys in the city, leaving their freshly washed naked bodies in public places with their laundered clothes folded neatly beside them.  Called "Babysitter" by the press, the story has little affect on Hannah until a boy from her own neighborhood goes missing.

There are three threads that weave through this book - Hannah's story, the Babysitter story and the story of a young man whose time in a Catholic boys home exposed him to a well-organised pedophile ring.  That all three stories eventually converge is both inevitable and horrifying.

I found this book a frustrating read.  I never got a handle on Hannah as a character.  She is clearly damaged - she thinks often of her "Joker Daddy" whose abusive behaviour toward her and her mother has apparently warped her sense of self (and possibly her idea of what intimacy and desire should look like).  She sees herself only as an object of desire and her self-worth seems so firmly tied to this notion that she's willing to risk everything to remain that.  

The story is told in fragments, often out of sequence, so I often found myself trying to piece together a narrative that seemed to be missing too many pieces to ever be whole.  But maybe I was just too frustrated with Hannah's lack of agency in her own decisions to see the things I was missing.  I know women at this time were often lacking in choices because they had no money or skills for earning it without their husbands, but Hannah seemed even more pathetic than most.  

So I don't think I'd recommend this one.  I didn't hate it, but here are other, better books by this author that should be read.

But don't just listen to me.  Here's the blurb:

From one of America's most renowned storytellers comes a novel about love and deceit, and lust and redemption, against a background of child abductions in the affluent suburbs of Detroit.

In the waning days of the turbulent 1970s, in the wake of unsolved killings that have shocked Detroit, the lives of several residents are drawn together, with tragic consequences. There is Hannah, wife of a prominent local businessman, who has begun an affair with a darkly charismatic stranger whose identity remains elusive; Mikey, a canny street hustler who finds himself on an unexpected mission to rectify injustice; and the serial killer known as Babysitter, an enigmatic and terrifying figure at the periphery of elite Detroit. As Babysitter continues his rampage of killings, these individuals intersect with one another in startling and unexpected ways.

Suspenseful, brilliantly orchestrated and engrossing, Babysitter is a starkly narrated exploration of the riskiness of pursuing alternate lives, calling into question how far we are willing to go to protect those whom we cherish most. In its scathing indictment of corrupt politics, unexamined racism, and the enabling of sexual predation in America, Babysitter is a thrilling work of contemporary fiction.

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