Thoughts on ‘We Were the Mulvaneys’ by Joyce Carol Oates

As you may have noticed, I don’t write reviews on this blog, because I feel a proper review should be comprehensive and analytical and, in all honesty, I find writing something like that a bit of a chore. Having said that, there are often elements of books that stay with me after I finish reading. I enjoy the process of reflection and would love to open it out into a discussion with readers and writers. Hence, this new segment on my blog ‘Thoughts on…’ which you can think of as a response, more than as a review – let me know what you think.


We Were the Mulvaneys is a family history, pieced together retrospectively, by Judd, the youngest of the four Mulvaney children, who live in great happiness with their parents and a menagerie of farm and domestic animals, until something terrible happens to Marianne, the Mulvaneys’ beloved and only daughter, and the family is completely torn apart.

It is a devastating book to read; the dissolution of the family is all the more heartbreaking after you have first got to know them in happier times – the sense of what has been lost is so strong.

One of the things I liked best about it was the beautiful, thoughtful descriptions of the relationship between memory and family:

What is a family, after all, except memories?

What’s oldest in your memory, you love best.

Members of a family who’ve lived together in the heated intensity of family life scarcely know one another. Life is too head-on, too close-up.

You can’t exercise memory until you’ve removed yourself from memory’s source.

Nothing between human beings isn’t uncomplicated and there’s no way to speak of human beings without simplifying and misrepresenting them.

So true! And what a challenge then, for writers.

There are different kinds of homesickness, you know? To fit different kinds of families.

And my favourite:

This memory was so old, retrieved from so great a distance, a fossil record of [his] soul.

There were also some challenging ideas about human nature. I would like to hope that this one isn’t true, but when I look at the world around me, I’m afraid that it might be:

Evil is genetically programmed into our species, like our rapacity against nature, our greed and superstition and stupidity – I mean, the inclination.

The book also introduced me to the concept of anti-Darwinism. It sounds preposterous, because who could argue with Darwinism? But rather than dispute the scientific aspects of Darwinism, it adds a philosophical component, which somehow skews the theory, and I have to say I rather like it:

Because we are human beings and endowed with spirit, in place of mere appetite, we can counteract nature. We can help the weak and thereby help ourselves.

I’ll close with what was, for me, one of the most beautiful and startling passages of the novel – something that is so obvious that we never stop to think about it:

And the most terrible thought came to me. ‘Every heartbeat past and gone.’ It stayed with me for a long time, maybe forever. Not just that I would lose the people I loved, but they would lose me.

We Were the Mulvaneys is not an easy book. But if you can bear the sadness, it is a wonderful one.

Your turn: Have you read We Were the Mulvaneys or any other books by Joyce Carol Oates? Does this one appeal to you? What do you think of her ideas on family and memory? and human nature? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Want more?

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Reading Round-Up: October 2013

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Thoughts on  We Were the Mulvaneys  by Joyce Carol Oates   ANNABEL SMITH

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