Joyce Carol Oates’s vast oeuvre draws extensively on 20th-century American history. This, her 51st novel, unflinchingly portrays the human impact, on both soldiers and civilians, of the war in Iraq. Carthage (not the ancient city, but the small town outside New York) begins with a desperate search for Cressida Mayfield. The difficult, ethereal, Escher-obsessed 19-year-old is last seen drinking with her sister’s ex-fiancé, Iraq veteran Brett Kincaid, who is subsequently discovered unconscious in his car outside a forest, blood spattered on the passenger seat. As Cressida remains missing and her family starts to grieve, Carthage’s opening section follows the formula of a ‘missing child’ novel.
The phrase ‘missing girl’ recurs throughout, echoing the language of newspaper headlines and television reports, but becoming more nuanced as the search for identity becomes the novel’s driving force. Later we jump seven years on from Cressida’s disappearance, with her body never discovered. Kincaid, now imprisoned for Cressida’s murder despite