Oct 12, 2007

The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

The Tattooed Girl is the sad story of Joshua Siegl, a reclusive author of Jewish origin, and of Alma, the young woman who comes to work as his assistant. Siegl is only in his late thirties, but due to health problems he realizes he can no longer live alone. He decides to hire an assistant, but he is bothered by the devotion with which many of the candidates to the job regard him – Siegl is mostly famous for having written The Shadows in his youth, a fictionalized account of the lives and deaths of his grandparents in the Holocaust. After rejecting a large number of candidates, he hires Alma, a young woman he meets at a bookstore. But he doesn’t know that Alma is anti-Semitic, and secretly nurtures a great hatred for him.

I think it takes an author of great sensibility and skill to tell a story like this well, and Joyce Carol Oates is certainly up to the task. The story is told both through Siegl and Alma’s points of view. This strategy allows us to understand the young woman much better, and thus the story is greatly enriched. Alma has been abused for most of her life. She is not very intelligent, she is relatively uneducated, and, most of all, she is deeply, deeply scarred. The problem here is that, like the book says, she “hardens her heart against the Jew”, even though Siegl shows her kindness and respect, unlike everyone else in her life.

But we also find some preconception on Siegl’s side. Because Alma is uneducated, he seems to think that the workings of her mind are much simpler than they actually are. He never questions her feelings, her motivations, and he seems to take much about her for granted. What we find in this book, then, is a detailed account of what happened when people look at others and don’t see the person standing before them, but a muddle of preconceived ideas and expectations on how they are going to act. It takes Alma and Siegl a long time to open their eyes and actually see each other for who they are.

Another thing I liked about this book was how, through the description of Siegl’s increasing health problems, it made me very aware of just how limiting our bodies can be, and of how great the emotional consequences of physical problems can be. This is something I’ve fortunately never had to face, being young and healthy, so sometimes I tend to forget it and take my body for granted. I’ve also noticed that descriptions of illness are a little harder to come by in literature than one would expect, considering how universal illness is. Perhaps that’s because the possibility of our bodies failing us is too frightening to think about.

The ending of this story was incredibly sad, and I’ve noticed that this seems to be a trend in Joyce Carol Oates’ work. I won’t give it away, of course, but I want to mention a moment in which Oates masterfully gets across the sensation of having feelings that are rightfully yours robbed from you. Of having others telling you, directly or not, that no, you are not allowed to feel the pain that is gnawing you on the inside. I realize this is vague, but those who read the book will know which moment I mean.

This was my first read for the Seconds challenge. I was previously familiar with Joyce Carol Oates through her short stories only. I will certainly be reading more of her novels in the future, though.

Other Blog Reviews:
Madeline's Book Blog


  1. I really loved this book when I read it a few years ago! The ending was really sad and stayed with me for a long time. I've only read a few books by Oates and she's sometimes hit or miss with me, but this one was a hit!

  2. I hope to read this book one day. Thank you for the great review! I've only read one of the author's books, The Falls, and I really enjoyed that one. It was very sad, but then, I tend to like sad books. Happy ones too. I like them all. :-)

  3. You're making me want to read Oates more than ever!

  4. This sounds like a powerful read! Definitely going to add it to my list...and hope that I actually get to it someday.

    They only thing I've ever read by Oates was a short story entitled "Thanksgiving" during the R.I.P. challenge a few weeks back. It was incredibly bizarre, though I really enjoyed it.

  5. tanabata: I definitely want to read more of her books. What would you recommend I try next?

    Literary Feline: That seems to be common in her stories. I'm going to look for "The Falls" - thanks for the recommendation!

    Eva: Do read her! I'm only just discovering her but so far I think she's really, really good.

    Debi: I haven't read that one yet. Some of her stories are strange, but very powerful all the same.

  6. I really haven't read too much so I'm not really the right person to ask. But Beasts, a novella really as it's rather short, was a very disturbing yet mesmerising read.

  7. Interesting. I've only read Expensive People, and I didn't enjoy it much, but perhaps I will give Oates another try.

  8. tanabata: thanks all the same though. I will definitely look for Beasts.

    Kim: You could give her short stories a try. That's how I first became interested in her.


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