Content warning: discussions of descriptions of incest, fatphobia, ableism, rape.
This review also contains some spoilers.
The Doloriad is a fascinating and thought-provoking book, though not in the way you’re probably expecting. Missouri Williams’ debut novel follows a family, or rather a clan, descended from incest struggling for survival in the wake a cataclysmic event that left only their mother, the nameless Matriarch, and a few others alive. With the belief that she represents some higher purpose, that she survived for a reason and can repopulate the earth with her project of incest, the Matriarch now lives in an encampment of a series of abandoned buildings with her (give or take) twenty children.
The book starts off with Agathe, one of the Matriarch’s younger children, watching her older sister Dolores, who is legless and mentally disabled, be wheeled off by their uncle into the forest surrounding their encampment. She is to be married off to other survivors that the Matriarch has seen in a dream, though Dolores is woefully unaware of this fact herself. But when Dolores quickly returns, having trudged through the forest on her arms, scared by something, the Matriarch’s delicate and totalitarian order begins to crumble, her reign coming to a tragic end, leading to violence and chaos amongst the siblings.
I felt a little grimy after finishing this and there’s several reasons for that. First, the overt fatphobia and ableism in Williams’ descriptions was actually overwhelming and a little shocking. There are several disabled characters in the novel, including its titular character Dolores, who does not have legs, is mentally disabled and incapable of speech, most likely as a result of her parents’ incest and the overlap of their close genetics. Dolores’ appearance is the subject of much of Williams’ description, such as her ‘stumps’ which ‘terminate just above the knee’ and her ‘large breasts’, ‘fat arms’, ‘sausage fingers’; she is a ‘fat lump’, a ‘glob’, and so on. It seemed at any given chance Dolores’ appearance was ridiculed, the source of disgust for her siblings. As a result of her disability, she’s also a frequent target of bullying and all kinds of abuse at the hands of her brothers and sisters. Also disturbing was the fact that while sex is frequently referred to, for the siblings take after their parents in that they share beds intimately, the only real sex scene is a violent and disturbing one in which Jan, the eldest of the children, attacks and rapes a defenceless Dolores in front of another one of his sisters. It’s a harrowing and disgusting scene, more than likely meant to illuminate the depravity of the siblings, Jan in particular, but the raw violence in his behaviour read far too disturbingly to feel at all warranted. The routine abuse of Dolores is important is clearly meant to hold some significance, but it quickly became difficult to read. Whether it was the sexual abuse by her siblings, or the humiliating descriptions of her and body, it eventually became too much for me personally.
Dolores is also not the only disabled character here. The schoolmaster, like her, also does not have legs and must rely on the children pushing him in a wheelbarrow as his sole source of transportation. Agathe is also disabled, though not physically, and suffers frequently from seizures, and a so-called ’empty-headedness’ that makes her another easy target for the crueler ones amongst her siblings. She isn’t subject to the same sort of bullying and horrific abuse as her sister, and instead is mocked and largely socially excluded. Disability in central to The Doloriad, but these experiences are entirely marred with abuse and isolation.
On the other hand, the prose is somewhat of a saving grace here. The Doloriad is very well-written, and I liked much of the writing – especially the recurring fictional version of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Get Aquinas In Here, the old television show the family crowds around an ancient TV to watch each week. Williams’ decision to write in the third-person was also a smart one, giving the reader an intimate birds’ eye view of the family, their seedy dynamics, the encampment and it’s dilapidated buildings. That said, as much as I liked the prose, with glimpses into the time before and the mysterious forrest, a large amount of it felt self-serving and unnecessarily long-winded, vague, and philosophical in a way that didn’t really tell me anything of substance. It read beautifully and felt incredibly grand, but I’m honestly not too sure what I was actually reading. At some points it felt like a stream of words that were somehow meaningful and meaningless, deep and shallow, all at the same time.
The Doloriad, was riveting – I couldn’t put it down – but mostly in the same way that you can’t take your eyes off the carnage of a train wreck; despite the blood and the gore, it’s a struggle to look away. This is a book about a profoundly sadistic family, power, sexuality, and the fall of man (or one woman – in a twisted, roundabout way). There’s no ending in which the violence depicted feels warranted. The novel ends without any real happiness, or justice, and is even lacking in what I would consider a concrete, definitive ending to the story it told. Yet The Doloriad felt like a good book somehow – the writing was strong, determined, and illustrative, though long-winded and hazy, and the story it tells is undoubtedly a fascinating and creative one, albeit disgusting at the same time. But I can’t look past exactly how repulsive much of the language and scenery is, particularly that surrounding the titular Dolores, who I truly came to pity by the novel’s close.