Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates – review

This exploration of war and family achieves a profound and poignant vision of American guilt

In a book club interview, Joyce Carol Oates described her 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys as an investigation into "the mysterious and seemingly autonomous 'life' of the family … the joys, the sorrows, the continuity of jokes and humour; the shared pain; the conflicted yearning for freedom simultaneous with the yearning for domesticity; always, the unspeakable mystery at the heart of the family. I wanted to write about complex lives as they are interwoven with one another, always defining themselves in terms of one another." That book turns upon the rape of a young woman and the impact this crime has on her family as their various responses to the attack reveal underlying secrets and weaknesses they have concealed for decades. Now, almost 20 years later, and very much post-9/11, Carthage explores similar territory with a new, Dostoevskian rigour, exposing the facade erected by an apparently successful couple – Zeno Mayfield, a well-known lawyer and former mayor of the town who is known to if not beloved by all, and his brave, protective wife, Arlette – in the face of an onslaught of near-unbearable pressure, when their daughter Cressida vanishes after an uncharacteristic night out at a rowdy lakeside tavern frequented by bikers and local toughs. According to witnesses, Cressida was last seen in the company of one Brett Kincaid, a badly traumatised Iraq war veteran who, to complicate matters further, had recently broken off his engagement to the girl's older sister, Juliet.

To say more about the plot here would be wrong, but it soon becomes clear that Carthage is not just the suspense thriller it had seemed at first sight. There is suspense, of course: did Cressida simply lose her way in the Preserve, a semi-wilderness of forest and lakes where walkers occasionally stray into trouble, or has she been abducted and, if so, is Brett Kincaid responsible? And why did he break off his engagement to Juliet? Naturally enough, these questions become the focus of speculation in the town, but other, more elusive questions go unanswered. Why was Cressida, the clever, difficult daughter, named after the "faithless" Criseyde, whose fate was that, at the end of her story, "no one loved her, or cared about her", while her pretty, religious sister was called Juliet, that most romantic of heroines? And what was she trying to communicate when as a schoolgirl she created skilful, MC Escher-inspired pen-and-ink drawings in which "white humanoid figures ... evolved by degrees into abstract shapes and became 'black' – then evolved back to their original shapes, and their original whiteness – but profoundly altered". When Cressida does ask about her name, her parents' response is dismissive: "Oh, honey, come on. We don't believe in fate in the US of A in 1996 – this ain't the middle ages". But all parents, Zeno and Arlette included, know that, "There are radiant children like Juliet Mayfield. Guileless, shadowless, happy", and there are "difficult children like Cressida. Steeped in the ink of irony as if in the womb." The question is, who or what makes them so?

To be steeped in the ink of irony is a dangerous condition in conformist small-town America – though not as dangerous, perhaps, as to believe in the standard narratives of love or heroism. When Zeno first meets Brett Kincaid, he is bemused by his prospective son-in-law's seemingly earnest wish to serve his country. "Wanting to 'serve' the country – whose country? Virtually no political leaders' sons and daughters enlisted in the armed services. No college-educated young people. Already in 2002 you could figure the war would be fought by an American underclass, overseen by the defence department." Meanwhile, Juliet, and even Cressida, in spite of her seeming cynicism, develop naive attachments to a romantic other that seem all the more poignant in the light of their mother's fate, which is to love and care for a husband for whom every loved one is a possession to be defended and, by that token, subtly appropriated.

By the end of the novel, we see that all of its younger protagonists are in search of a transformation that, like Cressida's Escher imitation, will carry them through some profound blackness before returning them, absolved of some unspecified guilt, to their original places in the world. This process could be called redemption, but redemption can only be won by the expiation, not only of one's own sins, but also of those of the fathers that, as the clown Launcelot remarks in The Merchant of Venice, are "laid upon the children". 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.

• John Burnside's new poetry collection, All One Breath, is published by Jonathan Cape.


John Burnside

The GuardianTramp

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