Even when Joyce Carol Oates isn’t writing overtly dark and gothic nasty tales there is a dark, treacly undertow to her absorbing novels of modern America. I wasn’t feeling like reading her latest book (well, her latest to hit these shelves: one of the most prolific writers, there is probably a newer new book out on the other side of the world) Carthage, because I suspected it would be fascinating, intense, slightly horrific and unputdownable, and you know, I had other things to be doing…
I was right, started it at 6 last night and within three pages I knew all that mattered was finishing it – and wasn’t even a smidge resentful at its sad, dark and unsettling seductions because it was so good and I was very curious about what was going to happen.
It starts with Cressida Mayfield, the 19-year-old youngest daughter of an important family in a small, upstate New York town, going missing in the forests of the Adirondack Mountains. She was last seen with Corporal Brett Kincaid, a badly disabled and not a little traumatised Iraq War veteran. Brett had until only very recently been engaged to Cressida’s beautiful older sister, Juliet. Evidence of foul play mounts against him, and Cressida’s family start to realise she may be gone for ever. But Kincaid cannot remember what happened that night and his memories of terrible wartime savagery twist and turn though his attempts to recall events closer to home.
I really liked the way the book was structured, the point of view shifting through various characters as the years with their terrible burdens of truth, lies and consequences roll on. Oates writes acutely, her writing is fine, her subject matter important. In the past she has written stunning stories of rough small-town America, incredible re-imaginings of Marilyn Monroe and the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsay, and spine-tingling horror stories. She is interested in crime and people and the monsters within all of us, what calls them out and how one lives with them, and the way that events have consequences that ripple out, both in time and space. The characters in Carthage are by turns sympathetic, pitiful, infuriating, horrifying – even when you don’t like them, Oates elicits a very real-feeling dislike. The tale has some very interesting twists that don’t feel at all contrived as each event simply feels like exactly what this person or character would actually do – when you start to realise just what is going on and who is doing what your stomach drops and the hairs raise on the back of your neck.
Worth giving up some of your precious time for!