Reading Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates is like slipping into a fever dream. It’s all dark winter mood and brooding atmosphere in this novel.
Bellefleur covers three generations of the Bellefleur family over the course of more than 200 years. Ms. Oates builds this long, sprawling novel with long, sprawling sentences filled with parenthetical asides and a boatload of commas. In its way, each sentence in Bellefleur is like a tiny fairytale waiting to be unwrapped. The result is a finely crafted novel that draws you in and keeps your there.
The Bellefleurs seem blessed and cursed in equally extreme measure. The Bellefleur men have a history of violence, rape, and severe gambling problems.
“The Bellefleur curse, it was sometimes thought, had to do with gambling.”
While Yolande Bellefleur suggests:
“ “The curse on us is that we can’t love right!” She was immediately hushed up. And cautioned never to say such a bizarre thing again, or even to think it.””
The Bellefleurs are not the kind of family you want to live near. They are to be feared, not just because they can buy and sell you with their fortunes, but because they’re mentally unstable and have a taste for revenge. A simple, brutal message is passed on to all Bellefleur children:
“Nothing is quite so profound as revenge, they were told. Nothing quite so exquisite.”
The Bellefleur women hold the real power in the clan. They work behind the scenes to manipulate the men—who quite frankly, can use a guiding hand. Led by the beguiling Leah, (“If any Bellefleur succeeded in this century, it would be Leah”) the Bellefleur women propell this family — and novel — forward.
Are the strange visitors to Bellefleur castle—the great cat Mahalaleel, (“You’re a poor lost thing, like any of us,”) Love the pet spider (…his gloved hands acted as if by instinct, as if, in the dim Bellefleur past, they had killed many a Love, just by holding it fast, gripping it fast, and squeezing…), abused orphan Little Goldie, the troll servant Nightshade—ghosts of family members come back to haunt the manor? What about the murderous monster bird know as the Noir Vulture (one of the coolest, creepiest creatures in all of horror fiction)?
“The baby was lost. As women’s screams lifted from the garden the bird rose higher and higher, with a noisy muscular grace, already jabbing at the helpless prey in its claws— tearing and stabbing at it with its sharp beak— so that pieces of flesh and skeins of blood fell…”
Even though the Bellefleurs themselves don’t seem entirely comfortable in their weird world, they also seem quite content knowing they’ll never leave. (Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle, anybody?) Bellefleur is gothic at its most gothic, (before gothic fiction was taken over by sad emo teens and homoerotic vampires) and Ms. Oates at her literary best.
Personal Note: A high school English teacher (Ms. Savage) recommended this book to me when I was a sophomore, around 1983, three years after Bellefleur was published. She knew I was a Stephen King fan and thought I might appreciate Ms. Oates modern gothic. But I wasn’t ready for Bellefleur as a 16-year-old boy. I bailed out after the first chapter. But I’m glad I revisited this novel two decades later, when I could truly appreciate it. Good call, Ms. Savage.
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