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The Rise of Life on Earth

3.48  ·  Rating Details  ·  270 Ratings  ·  25 Reviews
Selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of the most notable books of 1991, Joyce Carol Oates's The Rise of Life on Earth is a memorable portrait of one of the "insulted and injured" of American society. Set in the underside of working-class Detroit of the '60s and '70s, this short, lyric novel sketches Kathleen Hennessy's violent childhood—shattered by a broken h ...more
Paperback, 142 pages
Published September 17th 1992 by New Directions (first published 1991)
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What a Downer...
237th out of 274 books — 111 voters
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Best of Joyce Carol Oates
95th out of 107 books — 57 voters

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Community Reviews

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Oct 06, 2015 Tfitoby rated it really liked it
Shelves: lit
A child survives a brutal attack by her father, the same attack that her little sister died in, an attack precipitated by her mother abandoning the family. The Rise of Life on Earth is a cold, detached and often brutal story of that child's life from recovery in a public hospital through foster care and her early twenties as a nurses aide, a series of events and encounters that shape the person she will be. The matter of fact nature of the description by Oates, a recounting of the correct method ...more
Pamela Scott
May 14, 2014 Pamela Scott rated it really liked it
JCO uses a somewhat cold, distant narrator for The Rise of Life on Earth. Kathleen’s tragic tale is told in a neutral, almost chilling voice. The narration reminded me of someone just repeating facts without letting feelings get in the way. I’ve not really read any fiction where the narrator is so distant from the chapters and doesn’t attempt to create any emotion. It reminded me a little of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I expected the detached narration to create a lack of emotion but t ...more
Jan 30, 2011 Rebecca rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal style, story, imagination: typical JCO.

JCO gives brutal details of the abuse inflicted on the main character as a child and again as an adult, so vivid you'd think she was there to witness it. Somehow she manages to fully develop this character in less than 150 pages.
Aug 01, 2015 Gina rated it liked it
I first encountered the work of Joyce Carol Oates when I was taking an undergraduate course in Women's Studies in 1974. It was a time of great change for women and the books we read in that class opened up my eyes. We read Simone de Beauvoir, Fay Weldon, Betty Friedan and Doris Lessing, among others but the ones that affected me most were Oates' stories and novels. The immediacy, violence and passion were unlike anything I had ever read and her characters truly breathed on the pages. Terrible th ...more
Jen Kanke
Mar 18, 2016 Jen Kanke rated it really liked it
When you read this book, remember to breathe. You might forget in the pain, in the worry of it all.
Jane from B.C.
Nov 22, 2015 Jane from B.C. rated it really liked it
A horrifying short novel tells the story of a marginalized "invisible" young woman, Kathleen Hennessy. It is chilling…especially that final chapter.
Sherrill Watson
May 17, 2015 Sherrill Watson rated it liked it
As an escapist novel, this fails. As a realistic story, I suppose it's a good one.

Poor Kathleen Hennessy had a terrible childhood, followed by a prectically non-functioning adulthood. Why she survives, at all, is a wonder. This is a sort-of realistic story about an eleven-year-old who grows into adulthood, to perform a self-inflicted abortion. Didn't they have birth control in 1961???? Did she think the doctor would marry her & they'd live happily ever after? Sorry, it was just "okay" for my
Mar 10, 2014 Leonard rated it liked it
This is a short novel by Oates that focuses on a young girl, orphaned, alone, and consistently mistreated by others but remains stoic at her job as a nurse aide until she finds herself pregnant and abandoned. Then she takes matters into her own hand.
Dec 07, 2015 Ed rated it really liked it
Bleak, dyspeptic, and dystopian ("the underside of working-class Detroit in the '60s and '70s"), this is an unmistakable Oates novel. But it is also compelling and gripping.
Four stars.
Linda Lipko
Mar 05, 2012 Linda Lipko rated it liked it
This powerful tale of neglect and abuse lasting throughout the life of Kathleen Hennessy is told with a methodical, detached voice by the author.

Pulling the reader into the tragic life of an everyday hard-working. overlooked and pathetic like person, we see the emotional scars that prevail and lurk beneath the surface to erupt in random acts of revenge.

Yet another dark tale by Joyce Carol Oates, still, worth the read because of the deep knowledge and psychological depiction of the down trodden
Jan 27, 2016 Aimee rated it did not like it
Man that was a warm uplifting story NOT
Bruce Reid
Jul 04, 2008 Bruce Reid rated it really liked it
Novella length is about perfect for Oates; she can pack more ideas in than the bitter sting of her short stories allow, but the unrelieved misery and misanthropy don't have quite enough space to overwhelm. Though at 135 pages this may have the highest disturbing-sexual-imagery-to-page-count ratio of any of her works, and the last chapter is as grueling a read as I know. An autopsy of the "terrible secret strength of those whom the human world has made invisible," probably most horrific when it's ...more
Dec 30, 2011 Granuaille rated it did not like it
Shelves: book-club
I read this on Christmas morning. It was horrible.

The book is full of violence - I skipped many pages - which is unusual for me.

I do not believe that the characters are well developed. I do not see how the protagonist loves the doctor - there is no suggestion of love at all - instead it is a warped dependency.

I do not find the plot credible and have no empathy for any character.I only finished the book as it was so short and I hoped that there would be some good at the end - but this was not th
Hari Brandl
Mar 30, 2016 Hari Brandl rated it it was ok
One of JCO's more overwrought books. Lucky it was a quick read, because any linger and I wouldn't finish it. But there's always more.
Feb 29, 2016 Leah rated it really liked it
An interesting stream-of-consciousness piece that ended with me going, "hmm"
Feb 09, 2011 Mauberley rated it liked it
'I and the public know/ What all school children learn/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.'

It passed my test for compelling fiction by causing me to be late for work in order to finish reading it. It is a catalogue of horrors, a shocking portrait of what they once called the 'passive/ aggressive' personality.
Robin Doll
Oct 29, 2007 Robin Doll rated it liked it
Here's another Oates book I had to get rid of after i read it. Her writing is good as always, but the subject of this book is almost as monstrous as the one in Zombie! So she got jilted, so what? That's no reason to infect a whole hospital. See if I ever go under the knife.
Jul 31, 2011 Fnouristani rated it it was amazing
I gave it 5 stars no so much because I really liked it but rather because it was so well written and emotionally heart wrenching..She really brings the character to life ... the story is very distrubing...and the ending is brutal...
Dec 02, 2009 Nathalie rated it it was amazing
One of my favorite writers! The violence, the injustice, the cruelty of life - it's all in this short book (really a long short story). Not for the faint of heart...but brilliant nonetheless.
Jessica Doyle
Jan 05, 2013 Jessica Doyle rated it it was amazing
This is an extremely disturbing book but life is disturbing at times. Joyce Carol Oates writes about people in society that no one wants to think about, and I respect her for that.
Oct 24, 2008 Russel rated it really liked it
For... the... Kathleen's [sobbing uncontrollably]. But what the fuck, you know?

JCO is high maintenance but she's not a tease.
Mark Campbell
Jan 01, 2016 Mark Campbell rated it it was amazing
the end of this book is grosser than blood meridian
Very disturbing short novel...packs a powerful punch.
Apr 20, 2009 Dominic rated it it was amazing
This book reads with such force
Dec 16, 2007 Cherie rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
B Sad but typical early Joyce
Nascha marked it as to-read
May 23, 2016
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May 20, 2016
Courtney rated it liked it
May 19, 2016
Bernadette Calicchio
Bernadette Calicchio marked it as to-read
May 19, 2016
Lauren Blair
Lauren Blair marked it as to-read
May 08, 2016
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Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is also the recipient of the 2005 Prix Femina for The Falls. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, and she has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. Pseudonyms ... Rosamond Smith and Laure ...more
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