Artists must always find new ways to present their ideas in order to distinguish their works from each other and from the works of other artists. In his 1992 novel “Dolores Claiborne,” author Steven King steers away from his favorite genre—horror—and abandons many conventions of novel-writing.
The book consists entirely of the titular character Dolores Claiborne giving a statement to the Little Tall Island, Maine police, who suspect that she murdered her wealthy employer who died days earlier. Claiborne talks through entire decades of her life in an attempt to prove that she is innocent.
Claiborne is a colorful, foul-mouthed character who speaks in a charming dialect. She is not very pleasant at first, but as her circumstances are revealed, readers may grow more sympathetic. She fights for her safety and freedom at the cost of her standing with the law.
Instead of meticulously revealing secrets and creating artificial mystery, King lets Claiborne’s account stand on its own. There are no chapter divisions, so Claiborne’s stories continue uninterrupted. She speaks these stories into a recording device that may be used against her in the future.
The majority of the book’s pages are dedicated to the story of the demise of Clairborne’s husband. After years of withstanding his alcohol-driven physical abuse, Claiborne stands up to him to protect their children. She pushes him down a well and creates a bulletproof alibi. She successfully fends off investigators, but the townspeople are suspicious—Little Tall Island is small, and word travels quickly.
Decades after that, Vera Donovan dies. Donovan was wealthy but incapacitated by mental illness. Claiborne was her maid and personal attendant for years, so when people hear that Clairborne has been named the sole beneficiary of Donovan’s will, they wonder if she somehow expedited Donovan’s decline.
Claiborne hopes that by confessing to her husband’s murder the police will be more likely to believe her this time. She is innocent in this case, after all—she was not directly involved in the death of her employer, even though she witnessed it. Readers must question whether or not they believe all of Clairborne’s actions are pardonable.
The story is left open-ended. Nothing happens after the tape recorder turns off, although Claiborne herself seems optimistic. She says, “In the end, I’ll take what I can take n [sic] grit my teeth so it looks like a grin, just like I always have.”
This book is recommended for anyone interested in slow-burning drama with a dark atmosphere. It is not meant to be too suspenseful or scary, but it does include many disturbing themes, some of which were unaddressed in this review. The run-on organization of the novel guarantees that one will find it hard to take breaks. Overall, in “Dolores Clairborne,” King paints a compelling picture of a deep character who asks “What would you do?”