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Written by Joyce Carol Oates — Joyce Carol Oates is famously prolific and writes across a number of forms and genres. This novella promises a story of suspense.

Abby is 20 years old and living in New York State, a virgin bride to a religious medical student. She has recurring nightmares about skeletons. One the day after her wedding, she is on her way to work when she suddenly becomes distressed and gets off the bus before stepping into the road, into traffic. She is seriously injured and in a coma. Her husband sits devotedly by her side wondering what happened, grappling with the possibility that this may have been a deliberate act of self-harm.

There are lots of jumping-off points where you think Pursuit is going to get interesting. First, in a flashback we learn that Abby is not her real name. She had to admit as much when she produced her birth certificate to get married. She offers vague details about her past, claiming to be orphaned, brought up by an aunt. What is she hiding?

Willem is suspicious. It’s about the only thing that distinguishes him as a character, apart from a censorious attitude to sexually active young women and an aversion to abbreviated names. He watches Abby, looking for clues. But only a bit, and he doesn’t find out much.

It’s unclear, at the beginning, when the story is set. We’re told that Abby and her husband are old-fashioned, but that doesn’t narrow it down much. The few specifics come when the narrative shifts again, to her parents’ story. Her father fought in Iraq. He was estranged from her mother but struggled to accept it. He had an iPhone before he disappeared from Abby’s life in 2006. (The iPhone came out in 2007.) Time-travelling tech notwithstanding, this puts Abby and Willem’s relationship in the present day. So why doesn’t Willem just google her if he wants the truth?

Abby’s voice is quite idiosyncratic. She thinks thoughts and then qualifies them, in brackets. It’s quite effective in conveying the character of someone whose sense of certainty and stability in the world has been compromised. She isn’t quite sure even of her own perceptions. But as the book goes on and shifts between points of view, all the characters think in parentheses. Of course in a first draft the voices of the characters can bleed into each other, but it should be picked up in editing.

Eventually, of course, we learn the truth of what happened to Abby’s parents. It is horrific and disturbing, but not particularly surprising. There are none of the reversals you’d expect from a suspense novel, no sense that it might have been different. There is just lots of stuff that happens and then an oddly sentimental ending. The punch-in-the-gut twist which would make it all worthwhile and make you realise that you’ve endured the darkness of the story for a reason never comes…

The whole book has an unfinished feel, more like an outline or an artist’s sketch. There are lots of elements that could have been developed but never quite went anywhere. Perhaps that’s the trouble with a writer of Oates’ stature – everything she produces is revered, like Picasso’s doodles or the sweaty wristband of Roger Federer. She is such a great writer at her best, but sometimes you wish she’d slow down, take stock, write a little less.

Read more of our reviews of Joyce Carol Oates.

Head of Zeus

CFL Rating: 2 Stars

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