Breathless insights

This is my review of Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates.

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”.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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