Book Review: I Lock My Door Upon Myself by Joyce Carol Oates

Title: I Lock My Door Upon Myself

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Genre: Literary Novella

Number of Pages: 108

Rating: B

Recommended?: Yes

The narrator of I Lock My Door Upon Myself recounts the tragic story of her grandmother Calla and her doomed affair with an African-American man at the beginning of the 20th century. Calla is an apathetic wife and mother with a feeling of wildness to her. Her husband’s family is horrified by her and the rumors and head-shaking get even worse when she starts spending all her time with a Black water-dowser.

You know this story isn’t going to end happily so reading it is kind of like watching a trainwreck. I always admire how Joyce Carol Oates can conjure up her protagonist so vividly using so few words. There’s not much to like about Calla, and she’s a particularly bad mother.

I understood why she didn’t feel bonded with her husband (who was much older than her and was a purely arranged marriage) but she treated her kids like inanimate objects to do with as she pleased. In the classic tradition of Joyce Carol Oates, the characters aren’t all that redeeming as human beings, and the men are particularly awful. You never really get a strong feeling of ‘love’ between Calla and Tyrell, the water-dowser.

There were definitely some scenes where the book showed its age as to how Tyrell’s features were described. This easily could have been a three-star read for me but I thought the ending was beautiful. The setting in general was so evocative it was like a character in its own right, and the tragic way the passage of time is portrayed in the last 10 to 20 pages made me feel like I was watching an exceptionally atmospheric movie.

Just the sense of decay and loss as Calla retreated into herself was so well done that I moved the rating up an extra star when I got on Goodreads. I’m a sucker for Gothic stories about isolation and people being forgotten by the modern age and this book was beautifully written in that regard, even though I didn’t connect with it that much on most other fronts.

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