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Surely if you are picking up a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, you are not expecting an uplifting or optimistic tale. Therefore, you will not be surprised to learn that her latest book, BABYSITTER, is dark, violent and tense. It also is a razor-sharp examination of social constructs like gender and power. Set in Detroit and its tony suburbs in the late 1970s, it depicts an America whose mid-century post-war successes can no longer mask the social troubles barely below the surface.

Hannah Jarrett is married to Wes, a wealthy man, but she has little idea how he makes his money or even how he spends his time when he is away from her and their two young children. As she embarks on an affair, with a mysterious man she knows only as Y.K., she assumes that Wes also has cheated on her over the course of their 11-year marriage. Hoping to gain some autonomy and a sense of desirability, not to mention an escape from her often idle and still claustrophobic life of privilege, Hannah finds herself coming to room 6183 in Detroit’s Renaissance Grand Hotel. But her first meeting with Y.K. leaves her battered and bloodied, as do her subsequent ones.

"Here is a raw and desolate story penned in Oates' signature style --- flowing and visceral prose --- that doesn’t allow characters or readers easy answers to the difficult questions posed."

Hannah wrestles with the nature of her affair with Y.K. Is it love? Lust? Was she raped? She tries to process what takes place between them and the violence he inflicts on her. All of this leads her to question her life with Wes, her relationship with her children, and the abuse she suffered from her father. At every turn Hannah is uncertain, frantic, depressed and believing herself to be powerless against the opinions and actions of the men around her.

Hannah’s tryst with Y.K. is set against the backdrop of a community in terror of a serial killer of children. Oates exposes the rotten core of the Jarretts’ elite world: Babysitter, as the culprit is known, is one of their own. As the novel progresses, Hannah’s life becomes closer to that of Babysitter, and her horror at that realization steadily mounts as she cannot continue to ignore the truth. Yet Wes, representative of the blind eye often turned, grows increasingly paranoid and racist, spewing conspiracies and unfounded rumors about the murders and the killer.

Hannah’s perspective is nightmarish and hyperreal as she grows more and more troubled, struggling to collect her thoughts and assess her situation. Oates captures her inner world with frightening detail. Readers are along for the horrific ride as what Hannah experiences further damages her physically and emotionally. Though this is a novel that centers on Hannah’s interiority, there is also a trail of bodies as Babysitter continues to kill and as Hannah and Y.K.’s actions become deadly for those in near proximity. The violence wrought --- on Hannah, the child victims of Babysitter and those caught in the turmoil --- is graphic. Oates never shies away from confronting the fear and terror of her characters or the harm they experience or perpetrate.

BABYSITTER is a disturbing exploration of the power of prestige, wealth and whiteness and the powerlessness of women, children and Black men in the U.S. Oates skews and lambasts ideas about women’s roles and expectations. The killer here is noted for his “caring,” even “maternal,” disposal of the bodies, and Hannah hands off much of her own motherly work to her Filipina housekeeper and nanny, who turns out to be the only character who can really see what’s happening with her.

Violence and pain beget violence and pain in this brutal yet brilliant novel. Here is a raw and desolate story penned in Oates' signature style --- flowing and visceral prose --- that doesn’t allow characters or readers easy answers to the difficult questions posed.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on August 26, 2022

by Joyce Carol Oates