Book Review: The Sacrifice

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How alone this was going to be. How she’d been shunted into it as a farm-creature–cow, calf, hog–is shunted along a chute into the slaughter-house. Because the mother Ednetta Frye had requested a black police officer. A black woman police officer. Black had always seemed harsh to her. African-American was a preferable term. And there was Negro,  no longer fashionable. If she was anything, she was Hispanic. In crude mouths, spic. Yet among Hispanic Americans she was “too “white”–not just her appearance but also her way of speaking, her manner. Her life had been, since adolescence, an effort to overcome the crude perimeters of identity. Her skin-color, ethnic background, gender. I am so much more than the person you see. Give me a chance!

The Sacrifice, by Joyce Carol Oates

One of my reading goals for 2017 was to read more books by authors I hadn’t yet read from. So when I visited my local library and saw The Sacrifice prominently featured on a shelf, I decided to pick it up. Joyce Carol Oates is one of those names I’d heard countless times, but never really pursued.

The Sacrifice revolves around Sybilla Frye, a black teenager living in the fictional inner-city neighborhood of Red Rock in Pascayne, New Jersey, who is discovered hog-tied, beaten, and presumably raped, with racist slurs written in dog feces on her body. After a hospital visit during which Sybilla and her mother, Ednetta, refuse to have a rape kit administered, Sybilla claims that her abusers were white cops. For a while, little seems to change in the Fryes’ world, until Sybilla’s cause is adopted by Marus and Byron Mudrick, a reverend and attorney duo (who also happen to be twin brothers).

I was interested in this book for a number of reasons. For one thing, I learned that the plot of the book is based on the real-life case of Tawana Brawley, who was discovered in a similar state as Sybilla, accused white men of the crime, and was subsequently sued for defamation by one of her alleged assailants. In the past few years, as my interest in social justice has grown, I’ve followed (and been outraged by) many similar cases, so I was intrigued in the book’s discussion of rape culture and of race.

It’s intriguing when a book whose topic sounds fascinating ends up boring you. What didn’t I like about this book? Theoretically, I should have sympathized with all of the characters: with Sybilla and Ednetta, living under the abusive thumb of Ednetta’s common-law husband, Anis; with Officer Iglesias and Ada Furth, discriminated against by seemingly everyone for their race and their aspirations; even with Anis, whose abusive behavior is directly linked to his troubled background. Yet, for some reason, I felt nothing when I read this book. It was honestly difficult for me to finish, even though, at 309 pages, it isn’t exactly a long read.

I believe that had more time been given to develop the characters, the themes would have resonated more. The novel is told from the perspectives of different characters, including the ones mentioned above, spanning a wide range of races and ages. Yet I didn’t feel that I got to know any character beyond the surface. Each character was imbued with some kind of superficial motivation, but felt like little more than a stereotype. There were also some characters who were only described in passing. These characters were then used to evoke an emotional response from the reader later in the novel, which simply didn’t work. I could  not muster up an emotional response to a character I didn’t feel like I knew, let alone cared about. I wished the novel had focused more on the central characters of Sybilla, Ednetta, Anis, and perhaps even Ada, to delve into their reactions to the crazy happenings around them, but instead, there was a stronger focus on driving the plot forward, especially in the second half.

YES OR NO?: NO. Despite my interest in the subject matter, I found this book unengaging. To be honest, I felt more engaged when reading the Wikipedia page on the Tawana Brawley case than reading this fictionalization. I’m willing to try reading more of Oates’s work in the future, but this novel failed to capture my interest.

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