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A Novel With a Murky Moral
This article written by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on April 28, 1999. All rights reserved.
Newspaper headlines deliver a pretty accurate reading
of what is worrying us. Back in 1996 it was the mentally-ill homeless,
and author Jean Hanff Korelitz delivered up "A Jury of Her Peers,"
her first literary thriller, which centered on a vicious, sidewalk
slashing of a schoolgirl by a homeless drifter. Now Korelitz introduces
her second novel "The Sabbathday River," into the hyper-sensitive
area of "baby-killing," an anxiety about infant murder by
teens that includes New Jersey’s own "Prom Mom."
Korelitz reads from and signs "The Sabbathday River" (Farrar,
Straus and Giroux; $25) at Barnes & Noble in MarketFair on Wednesday,
May 5, at 7 p.m.
The suspenseful new novel begins with jogger Naomi Roth’s discovery
of the doll-like corpse of a murdered newborn floating in the shallows
of a New Hampshire river. The authorities of small-town Goddard quickly
accuse a single young mother, Heather Pratt, and succeed in extracting
a confession. When the corpse of a second newborn is discovered, the
police are undeterred and accuse the naive woman of both crimes.
Roth, a transplanted New York Jewish liberal and Vista volunteer,
stranded in New Hampshire since the ’60s, feels a sense of kinship
to Heather, a happy adulteress living on the outskirts of town, who
bears a marked similarity to Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. Both are outside
the social and moral strictures of this tight-knit, hardscrabble New
England community. Roth works with another newcomer and Jew, lawyer
Judith Friedman, to defend Pratt in court. Yet in the story’s startling
conclusion it is Roth who must confront some hard truths about the
"It was pure coincidence that the rash of high profile cases came
up while I was writing the book," says Korelitz, in a recent interview
from her home near Princeton. "The story began with a germ of
something that had happened in Ireland a long time ago when I was
living there. It was called the Kerry Babies case, which began with
the discovery of a stabbed infant, and where one woman was also accused
of giving birth to and murdering two infant newborns. I was well aware
of the case — everyone was. You could say the whole country was
obsessed with it.
"But it wasn’t until 10 years later, when I had my own child,
in 1992, that I saw something I hadn’t seen before," she continues.
"This was that the woman, who had been the victim in this case
of police misconduct and had become a feminist symbol, was in fact
— in my opinion — guilty of something: she contributed to
the death of her child."
While the high-profile scandal surrounding the deliberate or careless
murder of newborns is today’s news, the practice and its moral ramifications
is as ancient as human society. And the characters’ relationship to
their religious faith, or lack of it, is integral to the tale.
"I don’t think of this book as being about crime or infanticide,
but about moral murkiness," says Korelitz. "The first sentence
begins, `The first baby was found…’ And every step we take after
that brings us away from that horrible shocking moment and into murkier
waters. From the moment the baby is discovered, the reader is led
away from it, and from the horror of its murder, into issues of Heather’s
victimhood, into the assumptions made about Heather’s life, and the
outrageous excesses of the legal case that Judith Friedman must fight.
We end up making many assumptions as to who is really guilty, who
is to blame."
Like her protagonist Roth, Korelitz was born in New
York City into a progressive Jewish family. Her father is a doctor
and her mother is a family therapist. Korelitz attended Dartmouth
College (as did her fictional Heather Pratt) and paints a closely-observed
but unflattering portrait of rural New Hampshire here. Graduated in
1983, she took her master’s degree in English at Clare College, Cambridge,
and soon met and married the Irish-born poet Paul Muldoon. The couple
moved to the area in 1987 when Muldoon joined Princeton’s Creative
Writing Program. They are the parents of a daughter who will turn
seven in July, and will become parents again in late May. Notes Korelitz:
"It’s strange to be promoting a book about infanticide when seven
How does Korelitz account for the maelstrom of recent publicity concerning
young mothers murdering their newborns? "My husband has this theory
that if you’re writing well, that the world suddenly conspires to
give you what you need," she says. "In this case, as I was
working, every day I opened the newspaper, there was some new horrible
case. There was even a case recently of an English woman trying to
smuggle her dead baby through Kennedy Airport."
Can a full-time writer also be a consumer of news? "Absolutely,"
says Korelitz. "There are at least 10 novels in every issue of
the New York Times. Life is strange."
— Nicole Plett
609-716-1570. Korelitz reads from and signs "The Sabbathday River."
Free. Wednesday, May 5, 7 p.m.
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