Publisher: 4th Estate
Publication Date: 1st September 2022
Well Joyce Carol Oates is a bit of a legend isn’t she really? I’ve not read many of her books but even I know that.
When I heard that JCO had a new book out called Babysitter, focussing on a child abductor and serial killer I knew it would be brilliant. Little did I know that it would also crawl right under my skin! So much so that I had to stop reading and put it down a few times for a breather!
Set in the late seventies in Detroit the story focuses on two separate threads that begin to weave together. We meet Hannah Jarrett the wife of a very affluent and successful businessman, Wes Jarrett who is well known and respected in the upper class areas of Far Hills in Detroit. The couple have two young children Katya and Conor and a housekeeper and nanny Ismelda. Hannah spends her days doing philanthropic work and is cochair on many charity commitees. It is at one of the charity dinners she has organised that she has a chance meeting with Y.K. A mysterious man who merely briefly touches her wrist but makes a huge impression on Hannah. Despite not many other people in the room remembering him or even knowing exactly who he might be.
Hannah starts an affair with this enigmatic mysterious man and sneaks away whilst Wes is at the office and the children are at school to meet him in a hotel suite.
It is here that she finds herself waking up disheveled and with a patchy memory. Even though she knows something untoward is going on she still revels in the thrill of having a ‘lover’ to spice up her dull suburban life. And maybe this is what happens in affairs?…..
Whilst all this is going on we also have the serial killer thread of the story. A murderer dubbed ‘Babysitter’ has been abducting children of around ten years old and keeping them hidden for a few days. Torturing and sexually assaulting them before strangling them. He then bathes them and leaves them displayed naked with their arms and legs crossed with a pile of their freshly laundered and ironed clothes beside them.
Hannah is terrified that as punishment for her extra marital affair, her children will fall victim to Babysitter but she also takes comfort in the fact that so far the children who have been murdered have all been from neglectful families. Until the murders come a little too close to home.
As Hannah’s life begins to unravel she starts to wonder about how little she actually knows about her lover and she fights to keep her family together.
Hannah is not an immediately likeable character by any means. She spends a lot of time bemoaning her life and has many issues, particularly with her father who she calls Joker Daddy. She also dwells a lot on how as a white, affluent woman she is regarded by other people. Race plays a big part in the novel and is indicative of the time.
The serial killer aspect is not a huge focus if you’re only interested in this novel for that element. It’s a peripheral story that frames the disintegration of Hannah’s life.
This novel is very tense and made me feel uncomfortable at many points along the way! The descriptions of violent sexual assault and it’s aftermath are extremely graphic and make for difficult reading. There are also depictions of child sexual abuse within a paeodophile ring which are extremely uncomfortable, so please do bear this in mind if you’re considering reading.
Joyce Carol Oates writing is very distinctive and can be quite difficult to get into initially in my opinion, but once you’re there you are completely absorbed. Despite the feelings this book gave me I really did enjoy it. It crawled under my skin and took root in my brain. I felt like I needed a good hosing down after reading it!
I’ve also since bought more JCO novels to keep me topped up!
Thank you so much to Matt Clacher and 4th Estate for my review copy.
See you soon.