Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

Dolores Claiborne
By Stephen King

published: 1992

Synopsis (via goodreads): For thirty years, folks on Little Tall Island have been waiting to find out just what happened on the eerie dark day Dolores Claiborne's husband died--the day of the total eclipse. Now, the police want to know what happened yesterday when her rich, bedridden employer died suddenly in her care. With no choice but to talk, Dolores gives her compelling confession...of the strange and terrible links forged by hidden intimacies...of the fierceness of a mother's love and its dreadful consequences...of the silent rage that can turn a woman's heart to hate.

When I was studying literature at uni I used to debate (read: argue) with classmates about authors like Stephen King. Their argument was basically that since he has made lots of money from his books, they can’t possibly be of any substantial quality. I’m not going to go on about the stupidity of that kind of thinking, but I wish I’d had a copy of this book with me at the time because I wouldn’t have needed any words to refute their claim, this book would have said it all for me.

Delores Claiborne was a book I came to knowing nothing about it. I hadn’t seen the film, I hadn’t read reviews or articles on the book and the back cover barely gave any information into the story. I picked it up at a sale purely because it was a Stephen King book and I’ve always had a good relationship with his books. I loved going in to the book that way because I feel like I came out the other side with so much more.

I've always loved Stephen King's ability to create real people in his books, not just characters, and Dolores Claiborne is perhaps the most successful of his books in this regard. Narrated in a stream of consciousness ramblings the story is told in the colloquial voice of 65 year old Dolores Claiborne and the success of it really does hinge on the whether King can successful adapt his writing to that voice. There is no clear beginning, middle or end, instead it weaves back and forward through her life focusing on one thing then skipping forward twenty years, or scurrying back to a childhood memory.

This narration is Dolores' sworn statement at the Little Tall Island police station where she is trying to prove that she did no kill her elderly employer Vera Donovan. In order to prove that she couldn't possibly have been responsible she has to tell the full story of the two women's relationship, and the events that lead to her murdering her husband twenty-odd years earlier. While there had been whisperings that the death of her husband was of her doing, she'd covered the 'accident' well and it is only during this interview that she lifts the lid of the sordid and dark tin of memories that she's kept hidden for all these years.

Because the narration is in a stream of conscious style it is very unique in terms of voice. While she's recounting some of the most awkward, upsetting or terrifying experiences of her life it remains quite conversational. She pokes fun at her age or at herself when recounting a moment of stupidity that happened 30 years earlier and she frequently interrupts her story to ask the police officers if they remember ol' so-and-so, or if they're keeping up, or if she can perhaps have a swig from the Jim Beam bottle she knows is hidden in the detective's desk drawer. The language is light and dotted with delightful little colloquialisms that are unique to people of that age, from that era and from that part of the world.

Dolores' voice is so rich and warm and nuanced that I kept forgetting that I was reading a book by a man who would have been pretty young at the time of writing. There is no hint of King in the book at all, instead there is a sassy, quick-witted woman with no capacity for nonsense or stupidity who sweeps you up with her unfortunate life story. Like I said before, this book is one of the most successful, in my opinion, examples of King creating people not characters and it's probably one of the most experimental for many of the same reasons. It differs greatly from most King books in terms of style and content but it retains that inimitable ability to create characters that walk right off the page, sit down next to you and tell the story to you first hand.

I'm not going to talk about the story at all because I'd like to give you guys the opportunity to come to this book with as clean a slate as I did because I really think it had something to do with why I enjoyed this book so much. All I will say is that this book does a great job of showcasing the difference between outside and inside views as Dolores calls them. As Dolores begins to recount some aspect of the past she'll usually mention what the people on the tiny island thought or gossiped about on the subject, before peeling back the layers and giving you a far more detailed and complex issue than you'd ever guess from an outside perspective. I'll also add that the 'surprise' towards the end of the book really did surprise me, I never saw it coming but it pulled the entire story together and gave such an amazing feeling of completion.

Overall I was really happy that I found this book and I'll now have to look for Gerald's Game which is this book's companion piece (the two women are linked very briefly during a solar eclipse) and I assume is written in a similar style. While I really enjoyed it I doubt I'll be reading it a second time, I think part of the appeal of this book is learning everything as you go along and I'm just not sure it'd be worth a second read. That said I'd definitely recommend this book to everyone to read, especially if you're one of those Stephen King skeptics I dealt with at uni!

My Rating: 3.5/5


  1. Well you have sold me on it :) I really need to read more Stephen King. I usually love this kind of thing.

  2. That's one of the things I love about King too. He has an ability to write about real characters. They are completely individual and can stand on their own. This wasn't my favourite King book although I remember one part giving me the chills. It was the moment in the moonlight. She stops and is able to see someone else going through something similar. I can't remember which character it was. I have a feeling it was the woman from Gerald's Game or Rose Madder.

  3. Definitely give it a go Mel, especially if you're looking to get into King's non horror/supernatural books.

    I think it's meant to be the woman for Gerald's Game, and I completely understand that scene giving you the creeps! I really enjoyed this book, especially because of the characterisation but I probably won't read it again. To me it's one of those "Yeah I enjoyed that, but once is enough" books.



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