I had not read any Joyce Carol Oates for years, so it was a delight to find this book. The world she describes is realistic but comes from a fresh perspective. Her people are original creations. There are flaws, but never enough to take away from the overall accomplishment.
Newly married Ariah Erskine wakes in her Niagara Falls honeymoon bed to discover her husband of one day missing. She carries on a vigil for a week, becoming known as the Widow Bride of the Falls. But eventually Gilbert’s body is found and she has to accept his death.
Ariah changes over the time period of the book, which runs from 1950 to 1978. At the beginning, she is a shy, awkward music teacher in her late 20s, the daughter of the Reverend Littrell. She agrees to marry Gilbert largely out of a desire to relinquish spinsterhood.
After she is widowed, she remarries and discovers a sensual, passionate side to her nature. She is blissfully happy with her husband and children. But her early fears and superstitions are always there in the background: she knows that one day this second husband will also leave her.
In the third phase of Ariah’s life, painful experiences cause her to retreat from the world. She goes to great lengths to keep her family away from outside harm. Although we see a lot of the unfolding story from her perspective, we are aware that she often sees only what she wants to see. She never examines her own behaviour critically. Some chapters are written from other points of view and they help round out the picture.
Ariah is the most intriguing person in the book, though perhaps not a particularly likeable one. Her three children are all initially hindered by their mother’s fierce, smothering love, but they all eventually find their way around her into their own lives.
The story of Ariah and her family would stand on its own. But there is a whole second story woven into The Falls—that of Love Canal, based on fact.
In the sixties, the area around Niagara Falls became known for its concentration of chemical factories. Carelessness about disposing of toxic waste (if not outright criminal negligence) caused a spike in miscarriages, birth defects, cancers and more in the population living in the area that became known as Love Canal. Initially, residents’ concerns were met with resistance and denial but, eventually, after reporters began to investigate and public attention focused on the situation, there was a major court case and a settlement. The US government declared a federal health emergency in 1978. Residents were relocated and received compensation.
In The Falls, Ariah’s second husband, lawyer Dirk Burnaby, takes on the case in the late sixties—but he loses as a result of coverups and corruption and his career is destroyed.
Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional characters work well in this slightly altered universe and the history of Love Canal is a compelling, if depressing, part of recent history.
Having been born in Wales definitely added to my enjoyment of this series. The accents, the often bleak landscapes of small towns, the familiar colloquialisms, all added to an experience of—well, not quite nostalgia but something related. The series is set in the 1990s, but there is something about small Welsh towns that takes you back in time; attitudes and social mores don’t change as fast as they do in cities.
Bain, a widower, has an on-again, off-again relationship with the pathologist, Margaret Edwards (Sharon Morgan). He has a loving but strained relationship with his daughter Hannah.
The feel of the series is oddly uneven; there are some episodes clearly written and directed by different people. But the supporting cast is strong: Gillian Elisa and Geraint Lewis are very good as detectives and Sharon Morgan is well cast as Bain’s independent and acerbic love interest.
Lunch on the patio. Eating outside is one of the great pleasures of early summer. Various things from the Greek section of the deli taste so good in the open air. I should really have been drinking retsina, but it’s hard to resist the charm of something sparkling and pink.