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Joyce Carol Oates: The Accursed (Fourth Estate)

Joyce Carol Oates began this novel in the 1980s but put it aside for 30 years before going back to complete it.

Set in Princeton during 1905 and 1906, this is a vast, Gothic-inspired work that combines real people – US presidents Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland as well as writers Jack London, Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair – with the kind of upper-class characters who might have stepped out of an Edith Wharton novel.

In their privileged enclave around Princeton University they live their lives sheltered, or blithely ignoring, the harsh realities of a fast-changing world. Ku Klux Klan lynchings, child murders, extreme poverty and women's suffrage are all deemed "unspeakable" subjects in polite company. Narrated by MW van Dyck II, a baby during the 14 months of what became known as the Curse, who has collected letters and secret diaries, the story meanders slowly towards the nuptials of Reverend Winslow Slade's beautiful granddaughter, Annabel, to Lieutenant Dabney Bayard. It is an event attended by only the best families in the area. When Annabel is "abducted" from her wedding by the devilish Axson Mayte, several residents of Princeton become convinced of a curse and soon more unexplained events befall them; ghostly apparitions, changeling babies, possessed husbands, a bog kingdom and a girls' school invaded by snakes.

Oates is in mischievous mood, poking fun at Edwardian conventions and laying bare the hypocrisy, misogyny, racism and social inequalities of the time. However the novel is more tell than show, which leads to the characters being rather one-dimensional, more like chess pieces to be moved around in the service of the plot than rounded individuals. This makes it hard to care about any of them, even the accursed Slade grandchildren. Oates tends towards a rambling style with many digressions, tangents and footnotes, and this dilutes the impact of the more trenchant sections and feels a little self-indulgent.

By comparison, extracts from the secret journal of Mrs Adelaide McLean Burr, only newly deciphered by the narrator, work wonderfully well. Although an invalid wife – she is too sensitive and delicate to perform wifely bedroom duties despite being married for 15 years – Adelaide Burr has an extensive information network that keeps her up to date with all the strange happenings in Princeton. Spoiled, bitchy and not above writing anonymous letters in order to cause trouble, Puss, as she calls herself, is the most vivid and darkly amusing of Oates's myriad characters here.

Her journal entries are full of gossip and invention interspersed by self-pity over her invalid condition. The men fare little better than their cosseted wives, with Woodrow Wilson portrayed as a particularly nasty racist, much like many of his neighbours and colleagues, opposed to female suffrage and improving working conditions for the lower classes. Oates's characters are more concerned with the ghosts and demons rumoured to be abroad in Princeton than the all-too-real evils being perpetrated under their noses.

As a sly critique of the social mores of the time, the novel works well but the overall lack of focus irritates. The language and style are in keeping with the period but there are too many detours into uninteresting territories to keep the reader fully engaged.

This is a novel that demands a lot from its readers but doesn't always reward the close attention required. The sections that work are often brilliant and full of wit, but they are dimmed by the longeurs of the sections that do not.

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