A young girl’s disappearance rocks a community and a family in this stirring examination of grief, faith, justice, and the atrocities of war from Joyce Carol Oates, “one of the great artistic forces of our time” (The Nation)
Zeno Mayfield’s daughter has disappeared into the night, gone missing in the wilds of the Adirondacks. But when the community of Carthage joins a father’s frantic search for the girl, they discover the unlikeliest of suspects—a decorated Iraq War veteran with close ties to the Mayfield family. As grisly evidence mounts against the troubled war hero, the family must wrestle with the possibility of having lost a daughter forever.
Carthage plunges us deep into the psyche of a wounded young corporal haunted by unspeakable acts of wartime aggression, while unraveling the story of a disaffected young girl whose exile from her family may have come long before her disappearance.
Dark and riveting, Carthage is a powerful addition to the Joyce Carol Oates canon, one that explores the human capacity for violence, love, and forgiveness, and asks if it’s ever truly possible to come home again.
“Like, in Florida at one time, you had your choice of hanging or ’lectrocution. Now, you have your choice of lethal injection or ’lectrocution. In some states there’s ‘firing squad’—Utah, I think. In some states there’s still gas chamber, but maybe not hanging. Everywhere it’s mostly ‘lethal injection’ which can be a hard way to go, frankly. What’d you choose, you had a choice?”
Most of the visitors chose lethal injection—reluctantly. The others stood silent.
The Lieutenant surprised the Intern by turning to her and asking in a haughty voice what she’d choose. The way a schoolteacher would turn to a student he guessed wasn’t paying attention to him.
The Intern said she would not choose.
“Between ’lectrocution and lethal injection? You wouldn’t choose?”
“I would not.”
“In some state where there was gas chamber, ’lectrocution, hanging, fire squad, lethal injection—you wouldn’t choose? Sure you would.”
But the Intern was sure she would not. She would not participate in her own death.
“You, sir? What would you choose?”
The Lieutenant was addressing the Investigator who was the sole person in the tour-group who seemed to have challenged the Lieutenant’s authority.
The Investigator shrugged. He, too, would not choose. “I would force the state to choose. I would not participate in my own death.”
The Lieutenant said, exasperated, “But you would! If it was a matter of the easiest death—or what you think is the easiest.”
The Investigator persisted. “No. I would not participate in my own death because I would not grant to the state that power over me.”
“But then, you would be granting to the state the power! What you say doesn’t make any damn sense.”
The Lieutenant seemed offended, genuinely annoyed with both the Intern and the Investigator. Two such very different individuals, clearly strangers to each other, yet clearly temperamentally akin. You felt that, if the Lieutenant had his way, he’d have sentenced half the visitors in the tour-group to death just to teach them a lesson.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2013
“Knotted, tense, digressive and brilliant.”
Evelyn Beck, Library Journal, January 1, 2014, p. 101
“This is a story about war, violence, mental illness, love, hatred, and, perhaps most of all, the will to survive and the healing power of forgiveness, all powerfully rendered by a master storyteller.”
Stephanie Shapiro, Buffalo News, January 3, 2014
“‘Carthage’ is no small-town soap opera. It has higher aspirations: think ‘Crime and Punishment’ translated into plain English …”
Edmund Gordon, The Sunday Times, January 12, 2014, pp. 38-39
“in its dismayed vision of the poverty and ignorance of small-town America – in its sense of the domestic costs of foreign wars – the novel is propelled through its bumpier passages by a coruscating political rage.”
“[Oates’s] characters are created with a Dickensian sharpness of detail, and their relationships with one another are often involving; her language is rough-hewn and lovely; her plots are suspenseful and artfully made.”
Michael Pucci, New York Journal of Books, January 17, 2014
“Carthage shows an author still in command of her vision, one still grappling with the worst impulses of human behavior and with our capacity to forgive them”
Alan Cheuse, NPR, January 23, 2014
“Joyce Carol Oates stands as our time’s and our nation’s seeming force of nature, a genius of a writer whose capacious production and lively pace of completion hark back to another century …”
“Here she is, over 40 novels in, still throwing her shoulder again and again, trying to break down the door between us and the truth about family and the varieties of love and madness in American life.”
John Wilwol, Newsday, January 26, 2014, p. C20
“moody, marvelous … But perhaps Oates’ finest, most haunting skill is the way she can peg our weaknesses without judgment.”
Lesley McDowell, The Scotsman, January 26, 2014
“There is a strong sense of hope, then, in this often devastating, always compelling, rich and profound novel.”
John Burnside, The Guardian, January 31, 2014
“At its Dostoevsky-inspired conclusion, Carthage is, perhaps, darker than We Were the Mulvaneys, but what it attains is a profound and poignant vision of American guilt, and its potential for some kind of absolution.”
Liesl Schillinger, New York Times Book Review, February 2, 2014, BR13
“The title of this novel resonates with classically tragic overtones, which the author clearly intends. The word ‘Carthage’ summons thoughts of the ancient world: of Virgil’s jilted Dido, queen of Carthage, spurned by Aeneas, who put service to nation above love. It also recalls St. Augustine’s contempt for his youthful dissipation in his ‘Confessions’: ‘To Carthage then I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a caldron of unholy loves.’ T. S. Eliot wove St. Augustine’s self-recriminating words into ‘The Waste Land,’ deepening its subtext of sexual regret. And now Oates draws on those archetypes to lend context and gravitas to the tragedies of our own time, plumbing their mythic force.”
Dan Chaon, Washington Post Book World, February 6, 2014
“Joyce Carol Oates’s brilliant, weirdly structured new novel presents some problems for a reviewer who wants to persuade people to read it. First, the book contains some blow-the-top-of-your-head-off twists that would be immoral and unfair to reveal. Second, and more problematically, the somewhat-slow first hundred pages give no hint of just how surprising and amazing the novel is going to be …. this is a novel that transforms itself, and then transforms itself once more, and when we arrive at last back in Carthage to see the Mayfield family once again, they have been utterly changed, and the novel’s first picture of them has been transmuted as well.”
Donna Seaman, Booklist, December 1, 2013, p. 20
“… eerie, plangent, and gripping.”
Frances Perraudin, The Observer, January 11, 2014
“Carthage is an immensely proficient novel, with careful and elegant prose, and interesting experiments with form.”
Ann Treneman, The Times (London), January 18, 2014, Features p. 47
“Joyce Carol Oates writes about America’s big themes. Her prose is elegant. She is the mistress of all she surveys. I just wish she’d taken a bit more time to edit herself, to hone, to perfect.”
Charles Finch, USA Today, January 19, 2014
“Still, a reader will forgive a novel anything if it has emotional power, and as the story of Cressida’s disappearance unfolds, and the possibility of either a reunion or another hideous disappointment for her family looms, it’s easy to see why Oates has been so important for so long. She has the immeasurable gift of vitality, and Carthage is yet another formidable novel.”
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.