“Carthage” by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, 496 pages, in stores)
Reviewing the work of an author as celebrated as Joyce Carol Oates ought to be a pleasure. Reviewing “Carthage,” Oates' latest novel, feels more like a school assignment owed to a celebrated author described as a “living institution” and a “force.” While Oates recoils from the oft-heard description of being a “prolific” writer, this is her 40th novel. Quantity, however, should never be confused with
“Carthage” is a mystery told in fits and starts, one step up, two back. Greek references abound, from the place name of the town where the story unfolds to the names of the father and younger daughter in a dysfunctional family.
If Zeno and Cressida sound a bit overwrought, hold on. The older daughter loves a wounded warrior recently home from horrendous events in the Middle East. Visibly scarred, emotionally flawed, the man breaks off the engagement. Cressida, long enamored, makes her move on him, only to be rebuffed. Rejection escalates. When Cressida disappears, the worst is feared — and accepted. The embittered ex-soldier confesses to killing her and is sent to prison.
Fast forward several years to the ongoing survival of Cressida with a new identity and an even more dysfunctional relationship. While assisting an aging, leftist, very rich professor with scholarly investigations, Cressida-now-someone-else experiences an epiphany while touring an execution chamber in a notorious prison. Overwhelmed with remorse, she returns to Carthage and the broken family she repudiated to try to make things right.