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Above all she seemed to fear his sudden death (heart attack, car accident), his “disappearing” – “vanishing.”
Like the first husband Dirk supposed.
Except, strangely, Ariah no longer seemed to recall that she’d had a first husband, before Dirk Burnaby.
Joyce Carol Oates’ The Falls begins with a tragedy that leads to an unexpected romance and union between two lonely people. For most stories, that might be scope enough for a novel. Oates goes further though, spinning her tale to take in desire, betrayal, corruption, murder and finally, decades after the events that set this story in motion, a kind of redemption.
When Gilbert Erskine jumps from the railings of the Niagara Falls in June 1950, he leaves behind his bride married only hours before. A tortured young man who expected to find in his older wife a replacement mother figure, he instead found himself repulsed by the act of sex itself, compounding all the contradictions in his character, such as being a Presbyterian minister who rigidly believes in the Biblical age of the Earth, yet also feels fascinated by fossils. His bride Ariah Erskine, nee Littrell, is left feeling abandoned, damned, blaming herself for her husband of less than 24 hours’ death. While emergency services search for the body, she takes up a silent vigil of the Falls, which is reported widely in the media, her story fodder for local headlines and gossip. For seven days she waits, refusing to speak to her parents, or Gilbert’s, lying to the investigators who ask if there was a suicide note so that the reputation of a man of god can be protected. When the bloated corpse is finally retrieved, she collapses after recognizing the ring on his finger.
For years the story of the ‘Widow-Bride of the Falls’, is retold, becoming a timeless urban legend, a ghostly figure who is said to still be seen at her vigil. But Ariah’s life continues. During the seven days a young lawyer named Dirk Burnaby offered his services, interceding on her behalf with the emergency crews, the Erskines and Littrells, trying to keep her picture out of the paper. Dirk is a handsome, charismatic local celebrity, blessed with good luck and a powerful family that protects him from his gambling losses and romantic indiscretions. This golden boy and competitive legal eagle is surprised to find himself falling for the brittle and thin-lipped Ariah and proposes to her. They marry in a civil wedding, ignoring the cries of shame from their respective families.
Ariah takes the name of Burnaby, her third surname, and settles into a contented life of affection and mutual devotion. Still she can never feel truly secure, fearing this second husband will also leave, as the man she refers to only as the other did. When she discovers she is pregnant she is terrified by the thought that this is the product of her abrupt one night of married life with Erskine. In all the husband and wife Burnaby have three children, Chandler, Royall and daughter Juliet. Ariah’s fears of being damned, cursed by causing her first husband’s suicide, never dissipate and soon the family is touched once again by tragedy, with the Falls claiming another life.
Oates’ fluid and lyrical style of writing is matched to a plot that surges like the waters of the Falls themselves. Ariah at first believes in a strict moral universe ruled over by a judgemental God, but slowly sees nothing but random chance at work in her world. Dirk never questions the advantages he enjoys as a member of the jetset upper class. When finally he is confronted with a conspiracy that betrays everything he has taken for granted in his privileged life, he is unable to perceive the nature of evil even as it stares him in the face. In the town around the Falls the tourist industry is booming, but secrets have been buried in the ground, secrets attached to the name of Burnaby. Oates takes this story of two people who have found one another, found love in the midst of tragedy and challenges that love, dashing their happiness against the rocks. It’s a story that is passed along three generations, finally ending in the autumn of 1978. A story of voices luring suicides to their end in the Falls, oedipal mothers availing of face-lifts, the mysterious woman in black and a strange shaven-headed boy who holds the answers to the tragedy that haunts the Burnabys.
A truly amazing book.