“Carthage,” by Joyce Carol Oates, Harper Collins, NY, 482 pages, $20.99.

Joyce Carol Oates has been writing novels since 1964. This is her 40th. It tells the story of Zeno and Arlette Mayfield, the parents of Cressida and Juliet.

Julie is engaged to marry Cpl. Brett Kincaid, but he is seriously injured in the Iraq War and returns home deformed and disfigured. He breaks off the engagement with Julie, to the distress of some and relief of others. 

Out riding her bicycle one day, Cressida has a bad fall. She is rescued by Brett Kincaid, who presumably takes her home. But she never arrives there, and his car contains blood spots on the passenger side.

He is accused of murdering her, and in his confusion confesses. The body is never found, but he is nonetheless convicted of killing her and disposing of her body in the river. He goes to prison for 15 to 20 years.

In a segment in the middle of the book, we meet former Sgt. Haley McSwain, whose sister, Sabbath, has died. She believed one day she would encounter her sister in the form of another and she takes in Cressida, who has run away from home and who accepts her new identity as Sabbath McSwain.

She works as an intern for Professor Cornelius Hinton, an investigator-researcher for the University of Florida (“…exposing the sick underbelly of America”), and thus seven years pass.

We learn of the life of Ethel Kincaid, Brett’s mother, and we see in detail what life is like in prison for Brett, wrongly convicted of murder.

The lives of Zeno and Arlette are chronicled as they hope for their daughter’s return and finally come to terms with her death.

And then, one day, near the end of this long novel, something happens that turns everything on its head and leads to the final denouement. I dare not tell you that.

Zeno and Arlette are finely drawn by this experienced and capable author. We never entirely understand Cressie, who was apparently entirely capable of living a double life.

Perhaps the author is taunting the reader a little. Who would not consider leaving one’s present life for a grand adventure as someone else? The hurt and changed lives of those left behind are lost in the excitement (and need for) the possibilities of a different existence.

The book is overlong and more detailed than suits me. The author goes into more detail about everything than seems necessary or desirable to me, but she writes with such a felicitous touch (“His pebbly eyes scraped over the faces of his listeners.”) that the reader remains absorbed in the characters and their fates nonetheless.

“Carthage” is a good read, and I’ll be the first in line to read the next novel by Joyce Carol Oates.

Melvyn Schreiber is a physician at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Melvyn Schreiber’s essays are now available as a paperback book (without the book reviews and opera reviews). If you want one, send $15 to him at 12 E. Dansby, Galveston, TX 77551, and he will mail a copy to you. It’s not heavy enough to press your trousers with, but it may please you in other ways.

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