52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
With "We Were the Mulvaneys" and "The Gravedigger's Daughter," Joyce Carol Oates mined the intense emotional battlefields that can arise within families. Similar in theme and seriousness is her latest--"Little Bird of Heaven." In small town Sparta, New York, a young mother is found murdered. The primary suspects are her estranged husband and a married man with whom she was having an affair. But this is not a mystery or a thriller, it is a study of how such a tragedy can affect the families involved. The central characters are the children of the suspects--Krista who had no idea her father was involved with the victim and Aaron who actually finds the body of his mother. Virtual strangers, Aaron and Krista are now eternally linked by the crime and are infatuated with each other even as they struggle with the rage of being on opposing sides.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of "Little Bird of Heaven" is its narrative device. The first half of the novel is told from Krista's point of view. A little girl who idolizes and idealizes her father even as the town, her mother, and her brother turn away--her naiveté and stubbornness keep the harsh realities at bay. The second half of the novel is told from Aaron's perspective. Less vocal and introspective, Aaron struggles with his mother's death and what might be his father's involvement. The underlying themes of prejudice permeate every page as the town of Sparta casts its shadows over all the participants. Both Krista and Aaron must confront silent accusations as the more they support their fathers, the more they distance themselves from their previous lives.
"Little Bird of Heaven" is both intimate, yet surprisingly aloof. By telling most of the story through Krista eyes, the complexities of the situation are filtered through someone who doesn't fully understand what's going on. Aaron's story lacks some insight as well as he remains emotionally distant throughout. It's an intriguing set-up that does work on its own terms. Some may wish this were a slightly different novel, however, I believe this is exactly what Oate's intended. Ultimately, "Little Bird of Heaven" is about a lot of things--almost least of which is the murder itself. When Aaron and Krista meet later in life, it gives them both a chance at closure--but how important is closure when you've already lived your life?
"Little Bird of Heaven" is an adult story about loss, faith, guilt and ultimately need. And it's about growing up when you have no choice but to endure the hardships life sends your way. Oate's latest novel is a challenging and rewarding story that doesn't offer up easy answers for anything. Recommended.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Little Bird of Heaven is inimitably Oates. It has all her signatures - -the stylization of her writing, the focus on family narrative as destiny, and the mixture of pain and love. The stylized writing in this book is more pronounced than in some of her others. She repeats some things multiple times for emphasis and for varied affect. Initially, this bothered me but as the book progressed, I was so caught up in the narrative that nothing could deter me from wanting to turn to the next page.
As in her other books, love is closely mixed with pain, sexual and emotional longing, cruelty and betrayal. The family narrative is examined as destiny. She explores the theme of wanting to rewrite our narratives with the hope that this time it can turn out differently. The characters are drawn to people and events that remind them of their pasts, painful as they were. However, they hope that by reliving the past, they can change the outcome. Oates asks the reader, `Can we really change our destinies?' She acknowledges the fact that life is ever-changing but people are caught up in the current of family destinies.
This novel is about the murder of a young woman named Zoe Kruller. She is a singer in a local band, mother of Aaron and estranged wife of Delray. There are two persons of interest, suspects in this murder - - Delray Kruller, Zoe's estranged husband, and Eddie Diehl, Zoe's lover. Eddie is the father of Krista and he has been having an affair with Zoe for quite some time. Once the murder occurs he is shunned by his wife and made to leave their home.
The story is told in two parts, from two viewpoints. The first half of the book is told from the vantage point of Krista Diehl, Eddie's daughter. She is close to her father and loves him unconditionally. She believes with all her heart that he could not have murdered Zoe. She believes that Delray Kruller is the murderer. Krista becomes obsessed with Aaron Kruller though at the time of the murder she is in grade school and he is a middle school student, about four years Krista's senior. She believes she loves him and begins to shadow him, appearing at places he is known to go.
Aaron's story is the second half of this novel. He is the one who finds the murdered Zoe and this breaks a part of him. He is aware of Krista but has no idea why she is appearing at places he frequents. He believes that Eddie Diehl, Krista's father, murdered his mother. Aaron and Krista come from different sides of the track. Aaron is part Seneca Indian and there is a lot of prejudice against his people in their small town of Sparta, N.Y. There is one scene where Aaron finds himself Krista's savior and the profundity of love, cruelty and pain is described in a poignant and almost revolting manner.
Oates does a wonderful job of describing the pain that children endure when they grow up in addicted families. Both Eddie Diehl, Zoe and Delray Kruller are alcoholics and drug addicts and their children live with shame, secrecy and silence as they harbor a loyalty to their parents - - no one must know what goes on inside the home. At the same time, they become what is known as `parental children', children who parent the adults. As Aaron says "He'd been an adult for as long as he could remember, before even Zoe had died. Only vaguely could Krull recall a boy - - a little boy named `Aaron' - - on the far side of Zoe's death as in a shadowy corner of the house on Quarry Road". (p.357) . Not only do Aaron and Krista lose their childhoods to the ravages of addiction, Aaron feels that this has become his legacy.
"Headed to hell after her. Drinking beer till his head buzzed and his gut
was bloated like something dead and swollen in the water thinking how
it was so, Zoe had plunged into hell and was pulling them after her like
dirty water swirling down a drain. The kind of family situation, you
could call it an inheritance, you'd naturally need to get high and stay
high as long as you could." (p. 364)
This is a powerful book, not a light read. It is a book about despair, pain, longing, betrayal, addiction and cruelty. It is a book about life on the edges of the precipice where the characters are holding on by the mere strength of their fingertips. It is a book with brilliant insight and a riveting narrative.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2009
OK I admit it. I read everything by Joyce Carol Oates. That being said this is once again a marvel written by a writer who continues to outdo herself. In terms of nuanced phrasing, intriguing plot, subtlety of language, never revealing too much, and pulling the reader along in a magnetic aura of a dream, Oates is a master. If you have read nothing else of hers, you can start here and learn to love her artistry in a genre she has taken as her own territory. If you have liked or loved or even hated other books of hers (because admit it, she is versatile and varied) read this one. She is the real thing.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2009
I am a huge Joyce Carol Oates fan, but that doesn't mean I enjoyed all of her books;sometimes I think Oates engages in what I call "character over-development", but not this time. In "Little Bird of Heaven", she delves just deep enough into each major character that you feel like you know them as close as you would a sibling or good friend, in a way that makes you feel strongly for the character and even make you pity someone you never would have pitied unless you were in their shoes.
Also, I lived in a small town for about ten years and Oates has an eerie and uncanny knack for encompassing the small town mentality (where everyone knows everyone and their business) as well as giving the reader a vivid visual of the streets, houses, factories and shops, people, etc. of a town that has fallen on rough times and how the entire place seems to be affected and defined by the murder-scandal that occurred. We have all been told a million times in our lives that there are "two sides to every story" and truer words have never been spoken when it comes to describing the characters and their depictions/thoughts of events in this book; it truly makes you ponder things a lot more deeply when you can see vastly varying viewpoints about a solitary occurrence. I recommend this book to all Oates fans as well as those who are not.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I first discovered Joyce Carol Oates about ten years ago, when I read one of her short stories ("Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" It's a MUST read, by the way). I fell in love with her stories and novels because of the subject matter; Oates's novels usually deal with obsession usually of the sexual kind (them is a perfect example of this). Oates's novels are always dark and gritty, never easy reading but somehow satisfying nonetheless. Little Bird of Heaven is Oates at her best.
The setting is a working-class town in upstate New York (typical Oates) in the 1980s. The story isn't told linearly, but unfolds gradually over time. Some of the information we're given is repeated, but each time the story is told from a different point of view. Krista Diehl is the daughter of Eddy Diehl, suspected of but never charged with the murder of a local singer named Zoe Kruller, with whom he was romantically involved. On the other side of the coin is Aaron Kruller, the woman's son. Both he and Krista become obsessed with the murder of his mother--and, by extension, with each other, in a weird way. The first half of the book is told from Krista's perspective, the second from Aaron's.
Part of the beauty of Oates's novels is a common theme that runs throughout: obsession. Krista and Aaron are of course obsessed with Zoe Kruller's murder; Eddy Diehl is obsessed with clearing his name and having his life returned to normal. Another thing I loved about this book is the not-knowing; the reader never really knows until the end for sure who killed Zoe Kruller, and that's part of what kept me turning the pages. And yet Eddy Diehl certainly does keep acting guilty, doesn't he? I certainly think he does feel guilt, in a way, but maybe he didn't really do it?
Another thing I love about Oates's novels is her prose. I'm pretty sure that, if you plugged one of her sentences into Microsoft Word, it would flag that sentence as a run on; but Joce Carol Oates's writing is pure poetry. She breaks the rules of writing in a way that only she can. Sure, she does use a fair bit of profanity, which can be a bit disturbing. It's also exhausting at times to read, but well worth the effort of doing so. The only thing I didn't really get was Aaron Kruller's voice, especially as a child; I doubt that a boy of eleven, especially one with a bad reputation, would call his parents "Mommy" and "Daddy." Also, Oates goes a little bit overboard on the Elvis comparisons (it seems that a lot of people in Sparta, New York look like him!) But other than that, I highly recommend this book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2009
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
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2010
Although I consider myself to be a major fan of JCO, this book was very hard to get into. Krista's story was so full of redundant details that kept leading up to a parallel set of expectations (Dad, Aaron) that never actually materialized. None of the characters ever pulled me in and, while I had some sympathy for the situation, I never felt that I could relate to any of the characters. All in all, this wasn't her best writing.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2009
"Little Bird of Heaven" is vintage Joyce Carol Oates, so much so, in fact, that fans of her writing will immediately recognize the novel's setting and tone. Krista Diehl, the young girl whose father Eddie is suspected of the brutal murder of his mistress, is beginning to realize just how dangerous the world can be for a girl fast approaching sexual maturity. She is both repelled and fascinated by the boys and men with whom she is beginning to come into contact, and what her father is accused of having done leads her to the conclusion that men are dangerous beings. When her father one day emotionally grabs her by the wrist, her first thought is "Always you are astonished. Their size, their height. Their strength. That they could hurt you so easily without meaning to."
Zoe Kruller was somewhat of a minor celebrity in little Sparta, New York. She was the best thing that her bluegrass band had going for it and any performance of theirs at the local park was guaranteed to attract the attention of a large number of male admirers, men who found it difficult to resist Zoe's charms. To Krista, however, Zoe was the woman who served her ice cream at the local dairy and always remembered her name. She was Krista's friend. That she was also her father's mistress and that he would be accused of her bloody murder would change Krista's life forever.
Also changed forever by Zoe's murder would be her son Aaron, a boy whose own father is believed to be the most logical suspect in the murder if Eddie Diehl can prove that he is not the killer. Aaron, already on somewhat of a downward spiral of his own, is as certain that his father is not guilty of the crime as Krista is sure that her own father did not do it. Krista's determination to find the truth about her father and his relationship with Zoe Kruller leads her to become as obsessed with Aaron Kruller as her father had been obsessed with the boy's mother.
Oates tells her story from two distinct points-of-view. The first half of the book is filtered through the eyes of Krista Diehl who is really too young to understand everything that she discovers about the murder. This part of the book focuses on the gradual disintegration of the Diehl family which results from everything that happens to them following the murder. Aaron Kruller narrates the second half of the book and, since he is older than Krista, he fills in some of the blanks of Krista's version of the events before and after his mother's murder. Inevitably, these two young people have so much in common that their paths cannot help but cross - in a way that neither of them could have imagined and from which each are lucky to come out whole.
"Little Bird of Paradise" is a novel about self-discovery, pain, loss and how children so often have to pay for the sins of their parents. It is well written, as is almost always the case in a Joyce Carol Oates novel, but it is sometimes not easy to read because one feels, almost from the start, that its two narrators are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their fathers. This sense of impending doom will, however, keep readers turning the pages all the way to the end.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2010
This novel by Oates is so unrelentingly depressing that I gave up about mid-way through. The events are told haltingly with all sorts of sentence fragments and jerky tropes by, Krista, the daughter of Eddy Diehl. Eddy is the sort of macho, uneducated, working class, physically imposing male that Oates seems to find sexually exciting. He fits that male stereotype that some women just cannot seem to resist. He's violent, unpredictable, and addicted. Hmmm! With a guy like that you never know what's next. What fun!? No.
His daughter, Krista, has the hots for him in an intense Oedipal way--or I guess you call it "the Electra Complex" when it's the daughter's compulsion for the father. And this seems to be what the novel is all about. How much Krista loves Daddy despite what a jerk he is. He tries to present himself as a victim and feels sorry for himself like so many macho men do, but it won't go with anyone but Krista. Indeed, every character in the novel struck me as an unredeemed jerk, unworthy of our attention.
The story is set in upstate New York where I live. I'm familiar with Utica, Herkimer County, Watertown, etc. where the events take place. There's a lot to be sad about in Upstate New York, but it's not nearly as bad as Oates makes it. It's not all crime, addiction, hatred, violence, and ignorance--although there is a lot of unemployment just now.
Read The Gravedigger's Daughter by Oates. (See my Amazon review.) It has the same setting, and an Eddy Diehl-type character plays a key role, but it is, unlike Little Bird of Heaven, a literary masterpiece.
It's too bad this book is such a loser. It's got a wonderful title.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2011
I love JCO and I think this is one of her best works. After writing decades of novels and short stories, she sometimes risks mannerism or excessive melodrama - not so here. This is a beautifully crafted story where characters really come to life and stay with you after you've finished reading, with their pain, their yearnings, their hopes and disappointments. There is a sort of poetry even to the bleakest scenaries. I enjoyed every page and detail and was totally satisfied with the ending, which is quite rare even with good books.