Kirkus Reviews QR Code
DEFIANCE by Carole Maso


by Carole Maso

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-525-94307-2
Publisher: Dutton

A vivid rendering of the psyche of an unregenerate murderess breathes life into this impressive if typically irritating sixth novel from the prolific author of such postmodernist misfires as AVA (1993, not reviewed) and Ghost Dance (1996). Narrator Bernadette O’Brien, incarcerated in the Georgia prison where she—ll be executed, describes in an “elaborate confessional” (which she also calls her “death book”) her troubled upbringing (in Irish-Catholic working-class Fall River, Mass.), precocious brilliance (which led her to Harvard at age 12 and early eminence there as a professor of physics), and—in hair-raisingly explicit and vainglorious detail—her seduction and then murder of two of her prize students. Maso tells Bernadette’s lurid story in a calculatedly disjointed narrative that leaps forward and back in time and is composed of fragmentary remembered experiences and conversations, classroom lectures, diagrams (which mischievously parody scientific and mathematical formulae), poems, aphorisms, and amusingly grandiose quotations—and misquotations (mostly from Shakespeare). What emerges is a superb portrait of an unwanted daughter born to a 40-year-old mother and alcoholic father, and of a grieving sister (whose brother Fergus went to Vietnam and found “an untimely, violent demise in an absurd cause”)—a sister who would steel herself to become a powerful woman impervious to indignity and loss. That’s all to the good; what isn’t is the tiresome reiteration (familiar in Maso’s fiction) of diatribes against American materialism, complacency, and intolerance; “the peculiar behavioral habits of the heterosexual”; and, more generally (and more stridently), the ways in which men exercise power over women. The final pages, though, where Bernadette’s rages are subsumed in her intimations of solidarity with other women prisoners and of reunion with her brother, are the most affecting Maso has written. Maso’s still a writer burdened by an agenda, but here she’s grounded her protagonist’s fulminations in a recognizable reality and in a manner that makes this at once her most convincingly textured and technically accomplished novel. (Author tour)