The best book I've read in months. Moving, deeply emotionally invested in its characters. A meditation on the effects of war, violence, the morality of the death penalty, the treatment of soldiers after war, the effect of grief on families, etc etc etc. It's a big book with big themes. This is Joyce Carol Oates' best book since We Were the Mulvaneys. It's powerful, detailed, and relentlessly focussed on its tragedies (if that sentence puts you off then this is not the book for you!) I LOVED Cressida - never have I come across a more convincing late adolescent troubled girl. The whole book has the true, ineluctable trajectory of all great tragedies. It's wide in scope and tender in the treatment of its characters, with a sliver of ice at its core. A brilliant book.
on 14 September 2014
I have not read this author before, but based on the strength of this book, I will definitively read more of her work.
This is a story that took me by surprise because it tackles a girl's disappearance in a way I have not read about elsewhere. We are introduced to a seemingly 'normal 'family, in the town of Carthage. It comprises of two daughters and two parents. the older daughter is thought of as the nice, clever one, beautiful one and the younger daughter, as special and plain. As a reader I thought she has autistic traits or is on the spectrum at least. She is a gifted artist but her view of and interpretation of the world around her is somewhat off.
The older daughter is engaged to a soldier, who upon returning from Iraq, is damaged physically and emotionally. He is deeply changed and rejects the unconditional love shown him.
The family breaks apart when the younger daughter disappears. There is no trace of her after she is seen leave a local bar and the main suspect is the young soldier. So far, so much like any other novel. Read on. I won't tell you what happens next, but it is a novel full of surprises.
The author very skilfully explores issues of identity, family, veterans returning who are damaged in many ways, and whether it is possible to fully love and fully forgive. I highly recommend this novel and will seek out more by this talented author.
on 30 August 2014
This book takes you on a journey with many unexpected twists and turns. The story of murder, loss, family life and about the fate of veterans from "the war on terror" is told through the points of view of each character. It starts with the disappearance of a young woman and her father's frantic and unsuccessful search for her. We then hear of the effect of her disappearance from her mother's point of view. The story then covers the experiences of her suspected murderer before back tracking to the voice of the missing daughter. The plot is long and involved with the personalities of the characters slowly emerging and changing through their experiences.
It is a story of how people deal with loss, loneliness and misunderstanding. It is a poignant description of how even a loving family can fail to help one another. It contains so many psychological truths that it deserves to be retread slowly rather than raced through in order to find out what happens.
This is the first book that I have read by Joyce Carol Oates. I am delighted to find out that there are many more to read.
on 14 May 2015
The Mayfield family are part of the American establishment, well respected, well-off, middle class, with friends in high places. Their world is turned upside down by the disappearance and possible rape and murder of the younger of their two daughters, Cressida.
During the frantic search and police investigation, Brett Kincaid is identified as the main suspect in her probable murder. Brett is a wounded veteran of the Iraq war. Originally engaged to the elder Mayfield daughter, Juliet, he has now broken away from her and is a damaged man, both mentally and physically.
It becomes clear that the Mayfield family has been held together by the dysfunctional behaviour of Cressida, a lightning rod through which the family can channel their endeavours and a vehicle to avoid the issues that perhaps underlie their otherwise solid existence. Through the book we watch the family, and its individual members, break apart.
The book is ambitious in its themes; loss; violence against women; the impact of war; the American penal system. The central premise of the disappearance is also a good one. However, the novel never quite hits the heights that all these ingredients should result in. There is a significant amount of repetition; not the revelatory repetition that can be seen for instance in Donna Tartt’s work or Annie Proulx, but a stubborn reiteration of the same points that adds little to the story other than emphasis. In addition, there are few examples of characters acting as windows onto other characters’ lives - the majority of the book is a narrative between each character and the reader. The result gives a curiously comprehensive but ultimately two-dimensional view of the principal characters.
A worthy novel, but not quite the real deal.
The difference between a writer and a great writer is that the latter will produce a piece of work which is at once engaging, it may provoke you as well as endeavour to make you consider viewpoints which you may not agree with. Throughout her long and varied career, Joyce Carol Oates has produced fiction and non-fiction which are frequently not ‘easy’ reads, they will challenge you, making you question your moral codes and often offer alternatives which you may struggle with. She never shies away from controversy which is what makes her work so exciting to read.
With Carthage, she has once again created a work of fiction which delves deep into the dark side of American society, looking at the effects of its’ war on terror has had on individuals and communities. Readers of Oates are well aware of her mastery of the ‘psychological’ thriller, and in Carthage she once gives us a master class in the genre but also produces a highly readable, intense work of fiction. The novel centres around the disappearance of Cressida Mayfield, the daughter of the former mayor of Carthage, she was last seen with her sister’s ex-fiancé, Corporal Brett Kincaid, a veteran of the Iraq war who has suffered huge trauma to both his mind and body. As the story unfolds, we witness the impact of her disappearance on those involved, how there is a blurring of what is truth and what is not, and how we as human beings attempt to overcome tragedy turning to places and people we would never usually contemplate.
This is not just a ‘psychological’ thriller, it is an examination of war and its effects upon our psyche, it is also a condemnation of the American justice system and at it’s heart is the disintegration of a person’s or persons’ inner core. It is well documented that Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer, it is as if her desire to write is as necessary as her need to breath, does this mean her ability as a writer is weakened, the answer is no, her work contrives to tread where other writers would stumble.
on 19 December 2014
I thought this was a very good book. It goes from one character's story to another, but not as an affectation to be tricksy, it makes the story compelling. I loved the way it's written, clear, nothing wasted, evocative and involving.
on 9 October 2014
Joyce Carol Oates, America's greatest living writer, rarely fails to deliver a compelling and emotionally engaging novel, and that is certainly the case with Carthage. The story is one of her best, and the structure of the work is truly masterful (she has always fixated on the structure of novels, occasionally to the detriment of other aspects), but stylistically speaking, it's not one of her finest accomplishments, as the quality of the writing varies throughout the work. There are some truly clumsy sentence constructions here, which occasionally hinder the reading experience. I agree with another reviewer that the novel seems rushed through; one gets the feeling as her mortality grows ever closer that she's not as fastidious in her revisions as she once was, which is kind of understandable. And yet there are passages in this novel that are close to sublime, foremost being the account of Cressida's time spent in Florida, which has a different mood from the rest of the novel. The mystery present in the novel has nothing to do with the disappearance, but rather with the dynamics of the family, any family, and the way changes wrought on it by circumstance and fate mangle these dynamics and make life a constant bewilderment. JCO said in a past interview that her books are not sending a specific message to the reader, as she is not a propagandist, but that is not strictly true. One of the main thrusts of this book is her scorn and contempt for American involvement in the Iraq war and the blind patriotism that followed on from 9/11. Witness the relish with which she describes the horrors and callous behaviour of soldiers in that war. However the characters are always the main motive for Oates, and the way she unfolds the inner lives of the characters in this book is superb, as ever. The way the work builds and builds to its (tentative) resolution is really a lesson from a literary master, and it's good that she never completely satisfies the simplest wish of the reader, the way a substandard writer would do. Life is too complex to have happy endings. Oates understands this better than any other writer. And this work is a frequently thrilling and draining testament to that complexity. The ultimate message of this work, if there is one, is that human beings are all groping blindly through the darkness, trying to make some sense out of the cards dealt to them. We are all wounded by experience to some extent, and the truth and fascination reside in how we deal with that wounding, how we react and cope, and how we seek some kind of redemptive resolution to it. Carthage portrays this process better than any recent novel, and that is ultimately where its value lies.
This ambitious American novel is more than a crime thriller about a missing girl, gifted but plain, naïve and unstable Cressida, and Brett Kincaid who is suspected of harming her. Once an admired local sporting hero, he has returned, a physical and traumatised wreck from the Iraq war, the pressures of which have just brought to an end his longstanding engagement to Cressida’s beautiful elder sister Juliet. The author is also exploring the impact of the war on a small town community in New York State, and exposing the counterproductive effects of neglectful and cruel US high security penal institutions. On yet another level, this is a kind of modern fable, comparing the US with the declining state of Carthage, re-enacting in C21 terms the classical tale of “false Cressida”, the betrayer and bringer of misfortune to herself and others.
Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific and celebrated writer, with a clear compulsion to tell stories based on complex moral issues. She is often strong on creating diverse, if somewhat stereotyped characters who prove to have complex depths, convincing dialogues, and a vivid sense of place. The continual use of stream of consciousness in this novel carries the reader along, if you can “tune in” to it, and is effective in creating a sense of people’s changing, often fragmented, confused and changing thought processes.
What could have been an outstanding novel gives the impression of having been written in a rush. There is a breathless quality to the great flooded river of prose: the overuse of exclamation marks and brackets often grated on me. There is a good deal of repetition, which has a hypnotic effect but may be the result of a lack of editing. I also had to get used to the frequent “back-to-front” sentence structure which may need to be read twice to grasp the meaning. "Not contempt for the political propaganda fanned on all sides like deliberately set fires but fear - of what the new military invasion would lead to, beyond estimation".
Although the long chapter on a prison tour is a powerful polemic against the brutalising effects of incarceration without rehabilitation and more particularly of capital punishment, I found the delivery quite stagy, and such characters as “the Investigator” and his assistant “the Intern” unconvincing. This may have been a deliberate “unreal” yet hard-hitting interlude in the main story of the Mayfield family, which is gripping and moving, until it reaches an ambiguous ending, open to interpretation as either trite or chilling.
Flawed and irritating, yet full of insights into the human condition and memorable, this story is hard to “rate”.
This is a searing and devastating novel of guilt and redemption, themes often treated in fiction but not always with the cool, perceptive eye of an Oates.
The writing takes us into the heads of characters and gives an emotional intimacy that is as disturbing as it is effective. A brilliant book.
on 21 November 2014
Dark and ripping. Oates never disappoints her readers.