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Book review: "Carthage" by Joyce Carol Oates

Casualties of our dirty wars

When I interviewed Joyce Carol Oates in 2007, she talked about various themes in her novels: a fascination with the (usually female) victims of violence; a taciturn, uneducated man who is often her favourite character; the importance to the writer of the ugly image as well as the beautiful .... “A novel should extend sympathy,” she said.

Her latest novel both continues these themes and subverts them. The opening chapter is relatively straightforward: 19-year-old Cressida Mayfield has not come home, having last been seen in the car of Brett Kincaid, a wounded Iraq war veteran and the recently ex-fiancé of her beautiful older sister, Juliet. Her father, Zeno, a successful local politician, joins volunteers searching for her in the nearby nature reserve.

Kincaid, who has been drinking heavily on top of his medication, does not remember the night before; when he does try to recall what he did with his beloved’s precocious and moody little sister, his memory is crowded by images from Iraq, including the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl by members of his platoon. In turmoil, he confesses to Cressida’s murder.

It is only in Part II that we realise why teams of volunteers have been unable to find the body. As the narrative switches to Cressida’s viewpoint, we learn how years of typical family misunderstandings and teenage resentment led Cressida to run away from the small town of Carthage assuming that nobody will miss her.

Each character takes turns with the narrative viewpoint, but the language throughout best reflects the troubled perspective of Cressida. The sentences are short, breathless, exhausting. Finally, she understands: “And if the corporal had murdered her, the younger sister of his (ex)-fiancée, he must have been punished for this murder? She’d had to be very sick, mentally ill … not to have realised this.” It’s a bit of a “duh!” moment, as Cressida resolves to make amends, but Oates resists the temptation to spell out her authorial judgement here. Is Cressida mentally ill? Selfish? Or a victim?

If there’s a victim, it’s Kincaid – along with the other naive, patriotic young men. “Now that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were winding down, the veterans would be returned to civilian life, litter on a beach when the great tide had gone out.” In a novel that concerns itself with guilt and punishment, forgiveness and redemption, the image of the imprisoned veteran lingers.

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