A young woman is haunted by a past she doesn’t understand in this brief but powerful story of domestic violence.
In her latest novel, Oates (My Life as a Rat, 2019, etc.) is in full domestic gothic mode. Like any bride, Abby Hayman is hopeful that she’s stepping into a new and happy life. But she has more reason than most to long for transformation. Her parents disappeared when she was 5 years old. After a haphazard upbringing, at 20 she’s pulling her life together. She’s even put behind her the terrifying nightmares of skeletons hidden in tall grass that tormented her childhood—or so she thinks. Those visions return with a vengeance just before she marries Willem Zengler, a devoutly Christian pre-med student. The day after their wedding, she gets off a bus, then steps in front of it. Was it an accident or a suicide attempt? She’s so seriously injured she can’t answer the question, spending nine days in a coma and still feeling confused when she awakes. When Willem says, “We need to get to that moment, Abby. When you can tell me what you see,” he might be talking about the accident—or about her screaming nightmares. The first part of the book focuses on Abby and her shadowy memories. It intensifies as Oates switches to the points of view of Abby’s parents. Her mother married young and raised her baby alone while her husband was serving in the military in Iraq. When he returns, his wife hardly knows him: In the Army “he’d cultivated a cruel use of seemingly ordinary speech, given a mock-Southern inflection. Like a butter knife honed razor-sharp.” That cruelty will quickly escalate into PTSD–fueled madness. The book is so submerged in the nightmares that intrude on Abby’s life that it’s a little shocking to be reminded, by such prosaic items as iPhones and MRIs, that the story takes place in the present, in the real world.
A compelling domestic horror story reaches into a young woman’s nightmares of her childhood in search of what’s real.