Book Review: The Rise of Life on Earth by Joyce Carol Oates

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Title: The Rise of Life on Earth

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Genre: Psychological Fiction

Number of Pages: 142

Rating: B

Recommended?: Yes



TW: Sexual Assault, Child Abuse, Domestic Abuse, Abortion (very graphic)


After reading a couple of her novels, I’m not completely sure Joyce Carol Oates is even capable of writing a book that doesn’t make the reader want to kill themselves a little. I guess it goes without saying that this book was rough for me. There’s no comic relief, no hope, no reprieve from the constant suffering and humiliation. It centers around a character who is alternately ridiculed and used by her sexual partners, a woman for whom there has never been a true possibility for anything better.


When Kathleen Hennessy was a little girl, her father beat her nearly to death and killed her younger sister, and she ended up being shuffled between different foster homes before she reached adulthood. She ends up being a nurse and even though people think she’s ‘slow’ she ends up being surprisingly good at her job, until an ill-advised relationship with a doctor destroys her career and her life.


This is an early work by Joyce Carol Oates and doesn’t seem to be widely available, which is why I bought it online. To me, the thing about this novel (novella?) that really stands out is the amazing job the author did with writing the main character, Kathleen. Even though this book is extremely short, not even 150 pages long, I got an enormous sense of who the protagonist was as a person to the point where I felt like I was sitting in the room right next to her.


I absolutely hated the way she was treated and how she seemed so unable to escape the role of subservient victim but then the ending blew my mind and made me reevaluate everything I had just read. As usual, the way Joyce Carol Oates writes about sexuality is more grotesque than erotic, with most of the male characters portrayed as complete lechs with very few redeeming qualities. I think the thing I found most bizarre about this particular book is the way Oates imbues Kathleen’s body with a kind of hideously grotesque sexualization, her portrayal of the character feeling so intrusive and almost cruel that it made just reading the book feel dirty and voyeuristic at times.


Even though it’s the kind of book that will probably make you want to take a hot shower afterwards, the characters and the plot were very well-written overall (I would argue that the storyline was just a teensy bit over-the-top, but if you’ve read books by this author you’re probably familiar with her particular brand of misery.) The one major problem I had with this novel is that early in Joyce Carol Oates’ career she apparently had not yet learned the virtues of ending sentences occasionally.


Instead she decided to make each sentence at LEAST as long as a full paragraph, joined together with dozens and dozens of commas that seemed to suffer from literary ADD, incessantly straying off-topic mid- convoluted sentence. Unsurprisingly, the constant rambling across different trains of thought caused me a great deal of confusion. Nonetheless, though, this was actually one of the best books I’ve read by this author so far. She put so much into her character that it sometimes felt less like a story a more like watching a genuine tragedy taking place. I found it flawed at times, yet also profoundly moving.

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