A Fair Maiden

We never really grow out of fairy tales. A one-time staple of our infant literary world, they have an emotional and psychological potency that lingers in our imagery, our grown-up fiction and our fantasies. The film Pretty Woman wasn't hugely successful because it starred Richard Gere and Julia Roberts (all right, then, not just because). Its global success lay in its modern-day reworking of an archetype, in which a man in a stretch limo whisks his tart-with-a-heart princess away for a Happy-Ever-After ending.

With unsettling accuracy, Joyce Carol Oates delves into our subconscious to explore this very fantasy in contemporary detail. In A Fair Maiden, men like to rescue and possess or protect, whereas women like to be rescued and be possessed or protected, even by men who abuse them. It's a rather unfashionable perspective on the dynamics between the sexes, and one that will probably provoke outrage in some quarters, though Oates's portrayal convinces psychologically. At the same time, she reminds us that women crave love, but that they will often settle for money, and that men also crave love, or respect, but that they will often settle for playing the "Big I Am" when it comes to doling out the dosh. Both sexes have egos that demand to be stroked, and both sexes contrive to obtain power from their various manipulative transactions.

The transaction at the heart of this book is between Marcus Kidder, a rich artist in his sixties, and Katya, a teenager whose company Kidder pays for. Katya is spending the summer working as a nanny in Kidder's upmarket neighbourhood, briefly escaping a white-trash upbringing by her drunken mother. Dad disappeared a long time ago, leaving behind the "careless promise" (the author exquisitely sums up the man's entire character in those two casually sibilant words) that he would be back for Katya's birthday. Oates, whose award-winning writing career spans 45 years, is always sound on inadequate parenting, and here a lack of care has left Katya vulnerable to flattery and approbation. There are mutually abusive undercurrents between Katya and Kidder from their very first chance meeting, and the power base shifts constantly, but it is Kidder's eventual request that unleashes destruction and betrayal.

Like all the best fairy tales, this is an unsettling story, not least for its depiction of a generation of adolescents who will do anything for the sweet balm of attention, and of a world in which girls have sex because certain men, such as Katya's wolfish cousin Roy, simply look their way. Despite her initial revulsion at the age gap, and Kidder's increasingly creepy erotic demands, Katya is seduced first by money and notions of a more compelling identity for herself, and then by his apparently genuine tenderness for her.

Oates has written a modern fairy tale for an era which appreciates all too keenly that life rarely provides happy endings. The novel's adult characters respond to this knowledge by escaping into fantasy, whether it's gambling, flashy yachts, alcohol, sexy lingerie or art. We all want to be loved, but the channels of love have become grossly distorted.

For all the darkness, one gets the sense that Oates greatly enjoys playing with the fairy tale genre, a form that well suits her nuanced psychological insights. Katya is likened, explicitly and implicitly, to heroines such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, with a bit of Gretel thrown in for good measure. Repeated phrases offer the reader a nursery-rhyme sense of comfort out of familiarity, even if some of them refer to less-than-pleasant details, such as the "dark, feral wine" that Katya drinks once she becomes Kidder's artistic muse. Similarly, the phrase "precious amber liquid" is used with a conscious inversion of its traditional storybook role as a life-giving elixir.

Another pleasure of this novel is Oates's gift for subtle imagery. Broken shells on the beach, lying in wait to cut unsuspecting toes, hint at the hurt and destruction to come, while Katya's tattoo on her inner thigh, of the spades suit of cards, links several of the novel's themes - intimacy, gambling and risk, and men laying claim to women.

Oates's achievement here lies in her quiet skewering of a familiar narrative form, one that she manages to make fresh, current and gripping. The prose is taut, the insight shrewd and the violence vivid, but what lingers in the mind is the painful ambiguity of contemporary human interaction. The things we long for - happiness and love - turn out to be as fragile as the glass flowers decorating Kidder's house, especially when our relationships in the present are actually attempts to repair damaged ones from our past.

So it is a moot point, as the author concedes, whether there can ever be happy endings, and I am certainly not about to give away whether this novel has one or not. With this intense and thought-provoking work of fiction, however, Oates proves again that she is the inspiring fairy godmother among novelists writing today.


A Fair Maiden
Joyce Carol Oates
Quercus, 176pp, £15.99

Lucy Beresford's first novel, "Something I'm Not", is published by Duckworth (£12.99)