This book has absorbed me for the last couple of weeks. It’s clever, poignant and beautifully written. Yet for some reason I am struggling to know what to say about it. Perhaps because it’s so big and profound, whilst not really appearing to be so. Or perhaps because to say too much would give away what happens and how much hurt people feel.
It centres around one family- the Mayfields. Successful lawyer turned politician, Zeno. Supportive wife and mother, Arlette. Older daughter Juliet, beautiful, shadowless and happy. Younger daughter, Cressida, intelligent, difficult and missing after an uncharacteristic visit to a rowdy pub, where she was last seen in the company of Brett Kincaid, an emotionally and physically wounded Iraq war veteran who also happens to be the former fiancee of Juliet.
The book opens with the search for Cressida but soon develops into much more than the thriller it first appears to be. Rather it’s a portrait of what happens to a family when one member disappears, at what point responsibility begins, and of the nature of guilt – to destroy or lead to redemption. There’s a line attributed to Brett that describes his “yearning for expiation, and for annihilation” which is actually a very apt epithet for the entire novel.
And then there’s Carthage itself, which gives the book it’s name and is a presence throughout – a symbol of power and influence that is no more, yet remains protected. A symbol of small town America and all that’s good and bad about that life.
Names here are very important – Cressida’s namesake, for example is unloved and uncared for, whilst Juliet conjurs up romance, love and tragedy for her and her Romeo. Zeno discusses his namesake’s paradoxes with the family, whilst the idea underpinning them, that change is actually an illusion, is central to the book’s themes. In fact every little detail in this book is carefully thought through and I especially loved how each voice is distinct, how Oates uses language and sentence structure to evoke her characters’ personalities and states of mind. She does the big picture wonderfully too. So contemporary issues at the heart of American life are subtly woven into a story of personal loss, from the impact of war to domestic violence, each subtly enriching our understanding of the individual Mayfield family members’ responses to the tragedy that has befallen them.
CARTHAGE is a book to get lost in, so you can then later find yourself. A book that urges you to give into despair in order to find hope. A book that is both so vast and so contained that it will mean endless different things to different people, and which today, here, now, means a lot to me.