Some of Oates' books feel as if she wrote them as dares to herself. This novel, her 37th, is one of the wildest.
Oates sets out to solve a fictionalized version of the JonBenet Ramsey murder, with skating prodigy "Bliss" Rampike replacing the real-life child beauty pageant contestant. The resolution she imagines is heartrending, grotesque and totally believable.
It's also only the second-best thing about the book.
What's most impressive about the story is that Oates unravels the murder mystery from the perspective of one of the least reliable narrators imaginable. Nineteen-year-old Skyler Rampike, Bliss' older brother, is so shaky in his memories that he can't say for sure he didn't kill his sister. Lonely, disturbed and a self-described ex-junkie, Skyler both attracts and repels.
Unreliable and occasionally unpleasant narrators are among the greatest challenges for writers and readers alike, and Oates has a captivating ability to keep us turning pages.
For all Skyler's flaws Oates takes her time revealing their extent he writes beautifully. Maybe too beautifully.
The way to handle broken narrators, perhaps, is to try to find poetry in their plain speech. But Oates has already done that her "Zombie" is a brilliant exercise in the art of the seemingly unedited confessional.
With "My Sister, My Love," she attempts a new, ever more difficult maneuver: a literary memoir, obsessively footnoted and partly vetted by some unseen editor.
The recent announcement that Colorado prosecutors have cleared the entire Ramsey family in JonBenet's death does nothing to take away from the drama of Oates' version of the crime, and the conflicted narration is part of the reason.
The story is as much about Skyler discovering himself, through writing, as it is about discovering his sister's killer. Which makes it all the more impressive that the big reveal happens to be devastating.