THERE is a lot to respect and admire about Joyce Carol Oates' fiction. Foremost among her protean talents is the forceful imagination that has leapt out so often and illuminated all manner of situations and characters, some closer to home but often far removed from what must be her actual experience. Then there is the vibrancy and energy of her prose style: always hard-hitting, direct, memorable. The words "flesh" and "blood" inevitably come to mind when reading Oates, but so do emotions, feelings, passions. In few contemporary writers has imagination brought forth so much creativity and realism.
Each time you open one of her novels -- "The Gravedigger's Daughter" is her 36th -- you cannot help being struck by the sense that she is giving it her all. There is nothing ever formulaic, although she has a distinctive, instantly recognizable style. Her imagery can be lurid, her language forceful, even raw, but her tone is universally arresting, demanding the reader's attention, compelling it toward her story and her characters.
"The Gravedigger's Daughter" is told largely through a particularly powerful presence, that of a woman named Rebecca Esther Schwart, born on a ship arriving in New York harbor as her Jewish family flees Nazi Germany in 1936.
The evolution of Rebecca's consciousness from childhood until close to the end of her life more than six decades later is a tour de force. Harsh, colloquial, multifaceted, the novel's narrative voice probes Rebecca's mind and others', taking the reader on a roller-coaster ride through a horrendously difficult life that unfolds against a series of gritty backgrounds.
From the violent horrors of her abusive, life-extinguishing father to the beatings endured at the fists of her husband, this protagonist's past should have made her a monster. Instead, under her rough-hewn exterior, she is a good mother and an indomitable woman with an unquenchable spirit. Indeed, you wonder how a spirit like Rebecca's could survive at all, let alone flourish, in such an unremittingly pitiless environment.
Upstate New York, where "The Gravedigger's Daughter" takes place, is of course Oates' native heath, the particular corner of the world where that far-searching imagination took root and grew. Oates likes to set things there, and the splendid combination on display once again -- the observation of the known along with a variety of richly imagined situations and emotions -- works well, with the novel's realistic detail balancing the Sturm und Drang of its high drama and providing necessary ballast:
"Run, run! Through the weedy vacant lot adjacent to the school, along a street of brownstone row houses and small shops, into an alley, and so to an open field and the Buffalo & Chautauqua railroad embankment which she would follow downtown to Canal Street.... In Milburn, all hills sloped down to the Erie Barge Canal and the canal itself had been cut through bedrock, into the interior of the earth. At the bridge idle men leaned on the railings thirty feet above the rushing water, smoking, sometimes sipping from bottles hidden inside paper bags. This was a slipping-down place, a place inclined to muteness, like a cemetery where things come to rest.
"Why Rebecca was drawn here, she could not have said. She kept her distance from strangers."
Although "The Gravedigger's Daughter" is authentically grounded for the most part in the 1940s and '50s, it is reminiscent, as is so much of Oates' fiction, of 19th century American literature, a more sprawling, leisurely time for novels and novelists when someone as productive as she is would have stood out less than in our more directed age.
And if Oates has made upstate New York her own territory, it is also Theodore Dreiser's; reading this novel keenly brings him to mind.
It's a world of traveling salesmen and their women, of hotels and rooming houses, of gangsters and factory workers, of double lives and shaky identities.
Like her great predecessor, Oates has created in Rebecca one of those indomitable women who has to fight every day for the necessities of existence, but who never stops craving something more -- even if she does not always quite know what it is.
Perhaps Oates' greatest achievement here is to make this rough specimen of womankind into a truly attractive character who receives the reader's sympathy in the broadest sense of that term.
By the time we reach the profoundly moving conclusion, the narrative has abruptly shifted gears into an epistolary mode, a bold move that works brilliantly to shed a surprising new light on Rebecca.
Through these indelibly moving letters, Oates not only makes sense of a life that for all its turbulent action seems at times aimless, but also casts a retrospective frame onto her own narrative that provides a magnificent ending to an uncommonly satisfying novel.
Martin Rubin is a critic and the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."