By Joyce Carol Oates

(HarperCollins, $26.99, 496 pages)

Who is this author?

As this blog noted in 2012, Joyce Carol Oates, who is now 75, is nothing if not prolific: short stories, more than 50 novels (some with the bylines Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly), plays, essays, memoir, children’s books, poetry, criticism, and she teaches at Princeton University. she has won such major literary prizes as the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the National Humanities Medal, which is America’s highest civilian honor for the arts, the Chicago Tribune Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, among others.

According to the Barnes & Noble website: “On average Oates publishes at least one novel, essay anthology, or story collection a year (during the 1970s, she produced at the astonishing rate of two or three books a year.

What is this book about?

It’s another walk on the dark side of small-town American life. In the upstate burg of Carthage, N.Y., Cressida, a 19-year-old woman, disappears. Was she murdered, or did she run away? Suspicion falls on Brett, a physically and emotionally wounded Iraq War vet who was about to marry Cressida’s sister. The whole town searches for the young woman, unsuccessfully. Then Brett, who suffers PTSD, makes a startling confession. Think that solves the case? Then you don’t know Oates, who’s just getting this story started. This novel explores issues of grief and belief, justice in America and at war, and twists and turns its way to a complex conclusion.

Why you’ll like it:

Oates is a consummate storyteller: read just a few pages and you fall under her spell. She is adept at spinning real-life situations that reflect more abstract, national concerns about who we are and what it means to live in America in these times. But these lofty questions never overpower what is, in effect, a damn good mystery. We can’t know how many more books Oates can produce, but this one shows she has not yet lost her powerful voice.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly in a starred review: “Oates . . . returns with another novel that ratchets up the unsettling to her signature feverish pitch. Beginning with an attention-grabbing opener that begets addictive reading—Zeno Mayfield and a search party are on the hunt for Mayfield’s missing 19-year-old daughter, Cressida, in the Adirondack woods—the story chronicles the creepy circumstances surrounding the girl’s assumed murder. Was she, as many in the upstate New York town of Carthage suspect, beaten to death and dumped in the Black River by her older sister’s ex-fiancé, Brett Kincaid, a decorated Iraqi War vet? Or did she, the “dark twisty” daughter prone to excessive self-loathing, play some perverse role in her own disappearance? What transports the story beyond a carefully crafted whodunit is Oates’s dogged exploration of each character’s culpability in the case, which spans nearly seven years. Between Kincaid’s non-coerced but PTSD-fueled confession and Cressida’s feelings that her family didn’t understand or love her enough (the source of her long-suppressed desire to escape from them), nearly everyone can somehow be held responsible for the supposed crime—and seen as its unintended victim. When the truth and its fallout finally becomes clear at the end, the mood is not surprisingly claustrophobic and grim. Once again, Oates’s gift for exposing the frailty—and selfishness—of humans is on display.”

Library Journal says: “When Zeno Mayfield’s daughter can’t be found, everyone in the small Appalachian town of Carthage joins in the hunt. Alas, the trail leads to an Iraq War hero with an association to the family—and terrible memories of battle. Further complicating matters, it seems that the missing girl may have been estranged from her family long before she vanished.”

In another starred review, Kirkus Reviews says: “Dark events in Carthage, a town in upstate New York–a war hero returning from Iraq, a broken engagement, a mysterious murder–but not everything is as it seems. Carthage seems to embody the values of small-town America, for its citizens are independent and patriotic, but in early July 2005, things start to go dreadfully wrong. Juliet Mayfield, older daughter of former Carthage mayor Zeno Mayfield, is planning her wedding but finds her fiance, Brett Kincaid, broken and strangely different when he returns from duty in Iraq. Cpl. Kincaid is on a passel of meds, walks with a limp and has obviously experienced a severe trauma while on active duty. Meanwhile, Juliet’s cynical and smart-mouthed younger sister, Cressida (the “smart one” as opposed to Juliet, the “beautiful one”), disappears one Saturday night after uncharacteristically visiting a local bar. The next day, Kincaid appears, hung over and largely inarticulate, and blood is found on the seat of his Jeep. Although his mother defiantly defends him as a war hero, Kincaid eventually confesses to having murdered Cressida. The scene then shifts to Florida, seven years later, when an eccentric psychologist is interviewing Sabbath Mae McSwain for an intern position. She’s defensive about a name that seems obviously made up, though she carries a birth certificate around with her, and becomes visibly nervous when the psychologist starts probing about her past …Knotted, tense, digressive and brilliant.”

A third starred review comes from Library Journal: “Multiaward winner Oates’s latest work focuses on the disappearance and apparent murder of a talented but socially isolated 19-year-old by her sister’s ex-fiancé. The multiple points of view allow us inside the minds of the shattered Iraqi war veteran accused of the crime, the deceased young woman’s shocked and grieving family, and the young woman herself. In some ways, all are victims of wartime atrocities. Each perspective is involving; each character is complex and sympathetic. The result is a narrative that demands continual reevaluation of individuals and events, and readers are likely to race through the pages to unravel the mystery of what happened and why. The unexpected conclusion is very satisfying reading. 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. . . . “

When is it available?

Carthage can be found in Hartford, at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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