Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates (a #RIPXII finish)

I checked out Carthage from the library because I wanted an audiobook that would qualify for the RIPXII challenge. I found this one hiding in the suspense category and was excited to pick up another Joyce Carol Oates novel because it’s been a while! To be honest, I’m trying to decide how I feel about it. And it’s tricky to talk about without giving anything away, so I feel even more stuck! This novel was ambitious and explored many themes, including the war in Iraq, soldier mentality, what it means to be a war hero, the prison system in America, faults in the death penalty, and the comforting role of religion (or no religion) in people’s lives.

(by the way, if you’ve read this and want to talk about it in more detail, send me an email at katie (dot) gilley (at) gmail (dot) com.)

This book opens with a missing girl, Cressida Mayfield. Cressida is over 18 so despite her family’s understandable anxiety, they have to wait a while before considering her a missing person. But her family knows that something is wrong – Cressida wouldn’t have stayed over with a friend or gone somewhere to sleep off a hangover. She always comes home and doesn’t really have that many friends. She despises things that most girls her age embrace and always has. She’s not like the other girls.

We slowly come to learn what a frail person Cressida is. We learn how fiercely she protects herself from rejection and how deeply sensitive she is to any gentle criticism, all despite her rough and sarcastic exterior. Oates makes it clear that Cressida is somewhere on the Autism spectrum and it’s interesting to see those symptoms play out in her life. Although, I believe that Oates took some artistic liberty because Cressida’s reactions are beyond extreme in many cases.

The first half of this book centers around the search for Cressida. Where is she? No body is ever found, so her family has to rely on police investigations and eyewitness reports. We learn that the last person to be seen with her was Cressida’s sister’s ex-fiance, a corporal in the Iraq war who was severely injured in an attack. Could Brett have done something to Cressida? Brett was a star in their community: before the war, he was a well-liked, gentle, and kind young man. After the war, he came back with a broken body and spirit – definitely not the same Brett who left.

The second half of the book has our characters building new lives that are fractured and heartbreaking. The devastation of this investigation is far-reaching and affects every part of this family’s life. We see how people grieve in so many ways: some build memorials to remember the missing, others run and hide from it and build whole new lives, and others self-destruct while adamantly denying the outcome.

I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed this book, I guess. It felt repetitive in some spots and a bit over dramatic. I don’t typically need “normal” reactions from characters to enjoy a book. But some of the characters made decisions that I thought were too far fetched in this otherwise realistic novel. But I kept coming back to it for the suspense of what happened to Cressida. Once that was resolved (around the middle), I continued to want to find out how everyone would react. So I suppose the suspense factor had me hooked even when part of my brain said otherwise, which is a credit to Oates’ storytelling skills.

And hurrah for my second RIPXII challenge finish!



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