An uneven look back at an abusive childhood.
Castro, an English professor at Wabash College, in Indiana, grew up in horrific, and unusual, circumstances. She was adopted by parents who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. When they divorced, she lived with her astoundingly irresponsible, and emotionally absent adoptive mother. (When Mom goes out for a night on the town and Joy begs her to come home at 11 p.m., mom angrily replies, “Do you have to ruin everything for me?”) Then Castro’s mother remarries, and things go from bad to worse. Castro’s stepfather beats everyone in the family, and forbids Castro and her younger brother to talk to their father. Castro’s church community is aware that things are not harmonious in Joy’s home, but no one steps in. Eventually, Castro escapes and moves in with her adoptive father. Living with him is a decided improvement, even though he has a disturbing habit of commenting on the figure of every woman they meet and refuses to pay for his children to go to college. Castro has plenty of raw material for a powerful story, but the book is seriously flawed. The narrative veers back and forth, from adulthood to childhood to adolescence and back again: The opening eight pages skip from a first-person monologue from the mouth of Joy’s birth mother, to a thickly sensory description of Marrakech and San Cristóbal de las Casas, to a four-page reminiscence about Castro’s interviews for academic jobs in 1997. In a Cormac McCarthy novel, this episodic style is a strength. Here, it is a confusing distraction, likely to deter all but the most committed reader. The final 85 pages, which follow a clearer chronology, and include a carefully crafted account of Castro’s reunion with her birth mother, are stronger…but one wonders whether anyone will get that far.
Reads like a first draft.