Review

Little Bird of Heaven

by Joyce Carol Oates

Like many of Joyce Carol Oates’s novels, LITTLE BIRD OF
HEAVEN opens with a ripped-from-the-headlines type of premise only
to reach far beyond those kinds of tabloid themes to elevate tawdry
subjects to literary heights. In this case, the central event is
the brutal 1983 murder of Zoe Kruller, a young wife and mother in
the small fictional town of Sparta, New York.

At first, we see Zoe through the young, innocent eyes of Krista
Diehl, who knows Zoe primarily as both the vivacious, smiling young
woman who serves up ice cream (and flirtation) at the town shop and
as the sexy, dynamic lead singer of a popular local band. It turns
out, though, that flirtation and sexiness haven’t escaped the
attention of Krista’s father Eddy, either. And when
Zoe’s body is discovered in a seedy apartment she shares with
another woman, Eddy, along with Zoe’s estranged husband
Delray, is one of the key suspects.

Over the first half of the novel, Oates circles back to this
murder --- and to the events leading up to and following it ---
contributing additional details (and Krista’s growing
maturity and understanding) to flesh out what happened and why. It
turns out that as Zoe’s perky ice cream shop exterior faded
and her musical aspirations evaporated, her marriage began to
crumble, and she slipped into a world of alcohol, drugs and
prostitution. As Krista continually revisits these events through
the lens of her own growing understanding, she also becomes
increasingly fascinated with Zoe’s son Aaron, a violently
unpredictable but strangely alluring boy, whose youthful encounter
with Krista ensures that sexuality and violence will be linked
eternally in her mind.

Following a tensely pivotal scene between Krista and her father,
the narrative shifts focus to Aaron himself. As the lives of these
two youths begin to overlap, stories unfold as the adults in their
lives gradually fall victim to the despair and violence.  This
sense of hopelessness that characterizes life in Sparta will have
readers wondering whether Krista and Aaron are equally doomed to
relive the errors of their parents, or if they will be able to live
a life free of failure unlike so many other inhabitants of
Sparta.

The narrative, which, especially in the first part of the novel,
continually moves forward and backward in time, creates a
spiral-like story structure that revisits the same events, each
time with new information or perception. This writing style helps
to closely echo the feeling of being trapped in a small town like
Sparta, a town in which dreams and aspirations are doomed to
failure, where there are few choices except for dead-end jobs and
drunken stupors, and where young people dream only of escaping.
LITTLE BIRD OF HEAVEN combines a gritty, clear-eyed portrayal of a
certain kind of small town and its hopeless inhabitants, where
anger and fear cohabitate, and violence is never far behind. Sparta
is a town that Oates has portrayed before (in THE
GRAVEDIGGER’S DAUGHTER and WE WERE THE MULVANEYS), and in
this author’s talented hands, these three novels together
form a searing emotional portrait of a mythical and painfully
realistic small town.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 30, 2010

Little Bird of Heaven
by Joyce Carol Oates

  • Publication Date: August 31, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0061829846
  • ISBN-13: 9780061829840