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Joyce Carol Oates and Rebecca Makkai deliver two impeccable tales about violence against women

‘48 Clues Into the Disappearance of My Sister’ and ‘I Have Some Questions for You’ focus on victims with uncommon force and style to create narratives that transcend noir and plot fixation

Rebecca Makkai en Ontario, noviembre de 2023 y Joyce Carol Oates en 2018 en Nueva York.
Rebecca Makkai in Ontario, November 2023, and Joyce Carol Oates in New York, 2018.Getty Images
Juan Carlos Galindo

The noir genre often falls victim to the same trope: that of the serial killer who is presented — like it or not — as an attractive character. This year alone, we have seen several examples of said phenomenon. But a wave of novels, led by the extraordinary These Women by Ivy Pochoda (Faber & Faber) and Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman (William Morrow) have disrupted the trend in recent years in their resolute focus on the victim, on the victims, with uncommon force and style that transcends noir and plot fixation. Now, from a different approach, and with more radical motivations, two writers of the highest order (Rebecca Makkai and Joyce Carol Oates) have built out novels about murdered women that will leave no reader indifferent.

Rebecca Makkai’s gaze

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai is a layered tale in which, thanks to a powerful narrator (whose power lies not in her story, but rather in the author’s capacity to keep us with her) we discover the ins and outs of a murder, that of young Thalia Keith, which occurred many years past. Our protagonist, Bodie Kane, was the victim’s roommate at a boarding school for rich kids. In the 1990s, Kane returns to the scene of the crime and with it, to the memories of years during which she yearned to disappear, to an adolescence mired in the complexes and fears of a young, declassé person from Indiana. Herein lies part of the book’s strength, based not on Makkai’s demarcated ability to describe an era (a feat she had already accomplished via the ‘80s Chicago milieu of The Great Believers), but because of how a look back at the past is essential to solving some crimes. Here, someone has been convicted and imprisoned, but one must only scratch the surface to realize that they weren’t the true perpetrator.

The book is also an intense assessment of the creative process, of the construction of voices in a podcast and the narrator’s responsibility when it comes to the adoption of a point of view. It’s a panorama on how to torpedo a reputation and a life with just a couple of messages on social media. It would be too many things, in fact, if not for Makkai’s steady pulse.

Ultimately, the reader is left wondering if the title’s “you,” the seemingly perfect professor who is married with children, handsome, replete with social and academic prestige, is the culprit. Or, if he is not a murderer but is a sexual predator. Or, if he had nothing to do with the crime at all. The options are endless, in fact. At the beginning of the book, the narrator and protagonist is convinced of his culpability, but many surprises are in store for her down the line.

Two aspects, neither of them minor, complete the edifice of I Have Some Questions for You. On the one hand, the tale of a trial we never see for ourselves, and yet, that we follow passionately. And on the other, respect for the victim (her death is always treated as a secondary characteristic) and contempt for the murderer, a far cry from the tiresome fascination displayed by so many stories about psychopaths.

Another gift from Joyce Carol Oates

M. or Marguerite Fulmer disappeared in New York in 1991. Some time later, her sister, younger by six years, contemplates the circumstances that led to her loss, ever conscious of the tricks that memory can play. G. or Georgene, our narrator, has a hypnotic voice through which the reader begins to approach the details, whether they are true or not, of what happened to M. Here too are statements to the police, as well as things they were never told: a narrator-reader privilege that places the story in a dangerous and fascinating space.

Effectively, she who enters 48 Clues Into the Disappearance of My Sister must take care with its diabolical game, because it is G. who is leading this show, along with her jealousy and envy of a sister who surpassed her in all areas. She plunges the reader into a host of “maybes” before she sets the hook: “Too many maybes! Nonetheless (such is the seductive promise of clues!) perhaps one of them, as improbable and unlikely as it may be, is the Truth.”

In her explorations of noir, Oates likes to play with derision: G., for example, makes mention of worn-out police investigation clichés, even comparing them to a threadbare carpet. But she also infuses the book with true-crime style, enumerating real cases (a technique also employed by Makkai) to locate her fictional victims in a real, terrifying context.

Through that which she says, does not say, and that which we intuit she is hiding or exaggerating, we form a portrait of G. more complex than it originally seems, a portrait of M. (of the woman, the artist, beyond her status of victim and despite the distorted gaze of her sister) and, ultimately, a portrait of the heartbreaks of an investigation like this one, and all its surroundings: errors, gossip, sensationalism, clichés, loneliness and silence. Ah, and of course there is a suspect and fascinating trappings of a classic crime novel in certain sections of the story. A triple somersault that could only be made possible by the likes of Oates.

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