First published back in November of 1992, legendary US author Stephen King’s novel ‘Dolores Claiborne’ took a step away from the author’s usual supernatural/horror theme and instead delivered a powerfully emotive psychological thriller.
The novel was later adapted into the film of the same name in 1995, which was directed by Taylor Hackford and starred Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Sixty-five year old Dolores Claiborne knew it was finally time for her story to come out. Faced with the allegation of murdering her long-time ex-employer, Vera Donovan, Dolores knew the only way to prove her innocence was to finally set the record straight, once and for all. And so, as she sat there being questioned by the same man who headed up the case against her after her husband’s death all those years ago, Detective John Mackey, the sharp-tempered and strong-minded woman begins her story, starting thirty years ago with the excited run-up to the total eclipse.
Dolores Claiborne had spent her entire life on Little Tall Island, located just off the coast of Maine. The island was all she knew, and all she really cared to know. Her life was a simple but hard one. She worked day-in-day-out, scrubbing and cleaning and polishing and washing. Her job was that of the general housemaid for the wealthy Vera Donovan. Each month, Dolores brought home her meagre pay packet, with just enough to support her, her husband and their three kids.
Her marriage with Joe St. John hadn’t exactly turned out to be the best one. Having married when they were young, Dolores had since learned that her lot in life was far from perfect. She loved her kids and so squirreled away whatever money should could each month, to help them set up a good life for themselves away from the drag of Little Tall Island. With her husband Joe being a helpless drunk, Dolores knew she had to do this on the quiet, or else he’d just drink the money away in no time.
The laziness and the drunkenness Dolores could just about tolerate. He was a no good waste of space, but as long as he kept himself to himself, then Dolores didn’t much mind. But that’s the problem - he didn’t. And his temper was a vicious one.
But Dolores had learned to live with the beatings, the insults and the unwanted late night attention from her slobbering and drunk husband. She carried on as she had always, caring for the slowly aging Vera, bringing home the family’s sole income, putting up with Joe, and doing her best by her three kids. But all that changed when Dolores found out the reason for her daughter’s spiralling depression. Joe had taken to touching their daughter Selena. And that was the last straw for Dolores. She’s finally had enough. She needed out, and she was going to take the kids with her.
The first step of the plan was to withdraw all of the funds she’d been secretly stashing away at the bank. But there was a problem. Unbeknown to Dolores, Joe had somehow found out about the account, and had cleared it out. All the money was gone. All those years of working and saving, for nothing but a constant supply of booze for her child-molesting husband. She’d lost her ticket out of this misery. She’d lost it all. She only had one option left now...to get rid of Joe for good...
Written as one continuous dialogue, with no chapter breaks through the entirety of the tale, the story is told as if spoken in the first-person-narrative from Dolores Claiborne herself. To achieve this, the writing is intentionally stylised to that of Dolores’ Northern tongue, with all its exaggerated colloquialisms. Although it takes a little while to become fully accustomed to Dolores’ way of talking, the end result is a brilliantly believable narrative, as if every word was in fact spoken by the strong-headed woman herself.
Once again, King works hard on the characterisation for all of the characters that play out their roles in the story. Dolores is by far and away the main character of the tale, and as such, King goes to great lengths to make the character as believable and ‘real’ as possible. And in doing so, King has created an amazingly fleshed-out, living and breathing character, with a life and a story to tell. Reading the novel as if spoken by Dolores herself, you begin to connect with the character, you feel that you know her, can understand her turmoil and her iron-strong will. King has done an incredible job in creating Dolores alone.
The story itself is relatively plodding in its pace, with King choosing to set down a strong atmosphere and vivid backdrop to accompany the emotionally heavy storyline. Although the actual crux of the tale is reasonably simple in itself, King manages to elaborate on almost every turn in the storyline, taking the reader through a meandering route that eventually pulls everything tightly together.
Much of the tale is utterly heart-wrenching. King has an incredible knack of getting under your skin, with the bitterly emotive wrongdoings of Joe St. John (particularly involving their daughter), the constant battle of wills that Dolores is put through, and the unsympathetic attitude of the local police department (Detective John Mackey in particular).
King knows how to set a mood and really uses this to his advantage in the tale. The atmosphere when the total eclipse finally happens is simply breath-taking. Dolores’ moment is almost poetic in its compelling intensity. It all plays out in such stark vividness, the story catapulting the reader into that exact moment when everything in Dolores Claiborne’s life is going to change one way or the other. The writing is nothing short of spectacular at this one triumphant moment in time.
The tale ends in a typically heart-warming, all-encompassing conclusion that wraps everything up in a very neat bundle. King’s been in the business of writing gripping stories for a long time, and knows how to play his audience and end on a memorable note. And he does it to perfection.
All in all ‘Dolores Claiborne’ is a powerful and emotionally intense tale, playing on the readers heart-strings almost from the word go. It’s a finely woven story of a bitter life of pride and sacrifice, told in an enchantingly touching first-person narrative. True it’s not a fast-paced rollercoaster of a tale. It does plod along at times, keeping its own pace. But the atmosphere and emotional attachment with the reader is where the real treasure of the story lies. And it’s one that is likely to stay with you for life.
The novel runs for a total of 305 pages.
© DLS Reviews