I’ve lost count how many books by Joyce Carol Oates I have read over my lifetime (for she has been publishing nearly as long as I have been alive). She can be mesmerizing, maddening, oblique, seductive, mind-bogglingly loquacious, unrelentingly dark and naively hopeful. Often all in the same book. The sheer output this woman has is daunting, a marvel. That so many of her books or characters still inform my reading life is amazing. This book and it’s inhabitants will surely follow me for years to come.
Initially I tried this book in the audiobook form, but the disjointed points of view and zipping back and forth through time, compounded by the two different narrators was hard for me to follow. Luckily my favorite local book shop had a used copy so I started over. It took a while to get into the rhythm of the thing and to warm to some of the characters, but once I got my toehold it was tough to put this down.
Cressida Mayfield is the difficult, perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum, youngest daughter of Zeno Mayfield, benevolent mayor of Carthage and Arletta Mayfield. Her older sister, Juliet, “the pretty one” is engaged to Brett Kincaid. In 2003 he enlists in the army and is one of the first wave of young men being sent overseas. After two tours, he comes home gravely wounded and savagely scarred. Though Juliet professes to still love Brett, pledging to be by his side as he recovers, the psychological damage he has incurred coupled with the outward wounds makes it impossible for Brett to continue with the engagement. In a horrific turn of events, Cressida goes missing and Brett is charged with her disappearance and eventually her death, though her body is never found. In Brett’s compromised state, he confesses and is sent to prison, residing on death row. Two hundred pages into the book ( of nearly 500 pages) it takes an interesting turn as we are introduced to a young woman found beaten and near death on a lonely road outside a nature preserve. Coming to her aid is Haley, a war vet herself. She assumes the young woman has been beaten by a man and worried he is still on her trail, takes her out of the state and gives her a new identity, that of her deceased sister, Sabbath.
A sprawling novel of love, betrayal, the wounds of war and family bonds. Some passages needed to read again and again and savored, while at different points the book had the taut fine breathlessness of a top notch thriller. Another exemplary work by Ms. Oates.