Joyce Carol Oates: Carthage (review)

078960-fc222‘She had no existence, in herself. From earliest childhood she had believed this. Rather she was a reflecting surface, reflecting others’ perception if her, and love of her.’ (p. 378)

What happens when you are no longer able to live up to the label everyone else has put upon you? When you are the youngest sister, your sister is the pretty one – and you are the smart one, but failing at it. What happens then?
Nineteen years old Cressida Mayfield, daughter of the former mayor, is missing. She went to visit a friend and never came home. Investigations are made and it turned out that she acted rather out of character the last evening before she disappeared. She went to a bar to talk to her sister’s former fiancé, Brett Kincaid, something she never did, and they left together. The next day, Brett is found sleeping in his car, alone. But he’s parked in the forest, there’s blood in his car and he’s acting strange. He is taken to the station and later, he’s questioned in the disappearance of Cressida.
Cressida’s family – and especially her father Zeno – is desperately searching for her and not willing to accept that she is anything but lost. But then Brett confesses that he killed her. Brett is a disabled veteran of the Iraq War and since he got back, he hasn’t been quite himself. And now, although he confesses, his confession is mixed up with memories from what he experienced in the war and so it is not quite clear if he actually killed her or not – although he is convicted of it.
Cressida’s family has to adjust to the loss of her – and of course this has huge consequences for the three remaining members of her family. And no one writes this better than Joyce Carol Oates. Oates is a master at writing about the destruction of families, loss and suffering, and heart ache. She is such a skilled writer and her characters are so real that whatever they do, feels real. She creates flawed characters suffering because of both their own and others’ actions. Zeno and Arlette handle the loss very differently and grows apart because of it. Cressida’s sister Juliet, having lost both her fiancé and her little sister, is taking the loss hard – especially since she is presented as fighting with her sister over a man as well as dumping a war veteran. So slowly, the family is broken apart.
It is almost unavoidable to compare this to We were the Mulvaneys since both deals with the breaking up of a family caused by something happening to a daughter. Despite having these similarities, they are still very different books; We were the Mulvaneys being the sadder ones in some ways, probably because there’s a hope of redemption in this one. I’ve rated them both the same but I am giving the edge to We were the Mulvaneys – it is a a better book, although both are excellent.
One thing you can always count on with Joyce Carol Oates, is her taking on difficult subjects. In this one, besides the unability of families to handle serious traumas, she discusses both the death penalty and the way the US takes care of it’s (disabled) war veterans. The last one is a issue in many countries – how do you get wounded soldiers who are damaged both mentally and physically back into society without them being a safety risk to others? The death penalty is not an issue in many countries – especially not in Western countries. I don’t see Oates as being in favor of the death penalty even though she writes the following: ‘… if you were a foe of capital punishment, it was a good idea not to know what condemned prisoners had been convicted of doing to their victims. Good not to temper mercy with too much information.’ (p. 259) She also writes about The Innocence Project as well as have a significant part of the novel taking place in a death penalty facility and a significant plot turning being caused by a character lying down in a execution chamber and by that being reborn.
As always, Joyce Carol Oates delivers. I enjoyed myself every minute I spent reading this book and as always, her way of writing is what impresses me the most. I’m still as blown away by it as I was years ago when I picked up Blonde. This is a really good book and even though Cressida isn’t necessarily the most likable character, Oates makes your care about what happened to her and interesting in reading about her childhood and the experiences that shaped her and brought events in motion which led to a young girl seeking out her sister’s ex fiancé to declare her love for him.

‘You do not want to disappoint those who love you or whom you love. Always it is the easiest thing to kill them as it is easier to kills civilian who might fuck you up with a complaint, easier than to negotiate a deal, once a person is dead there are no longer two sides to a story.’ (p. 180)

First line: Didn’t love me enough.

  • Title: Carthage
  • Author: Joyce Carol Oates
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate
  • Year: 2014
  • Pages: 482 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

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8 thoughts on “Joyce Carol Oates: Carthage (review)

  1. Another novel. She is so prolific. I can hardly belive it. It sounds interesting. Death penalty and war veterans are topics I’m interested in. Traumas in families . . . I’d love to read it, if only there were not so many of her books on my piles already.

    • She is extremely prolific. One or two books every year! I think I own about 20 of her novels and novellas and that’s maybe a third of her fiction production, I think! But this one is really good. But then – all her books are good…

  2. I’ve read only a couple of her books, one of them being We Were the Mulvaneys. That was a brutal book, but also very well-written. Must keep this one in mind too.

  3. I’m really looking forward to reading this one (…and her other bazillion books that I haven’t gotten to yet). The death penalty is something I’m pretty passionate about (on the “against” side).

    • Yeah me too. (btw – there’s an interesting book called Dead at Midnight by Cabana. He’s a former warren in charge of death penalties – who has changed his mind…) I’m hoping to one day have read all her books (at least her fiction ones) but I think your Margaret Atwood is more achievable…!

  4. I have yet to read anything by Oates, although she has been on my radar for so long now. I should really do something about it because if I do find I enjoy her there is certainly a back catalogue to go for. Where would be a good place to start, do you think, to get a really representative view of her work?

    • Well, roughly said a lot of her books is about the American dream gone wrong. I started with Blonde about Marilyn Monroe and loved it. In fact I’m hoping to reread it soon(ish). But I’ll probably say We Were the Mulvaneys – it’s her most famous novel, it deals with a lot of the themes she likes to investigate and it’s a really good novel.

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