The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll

Gollancz, 1999, 282pp, £16.99
reviewed in Vector 207, September-October 1999

Late for a dinner party, Miranda Romanac finds that Manhattan speeds her journey, all the lights are on green for her.

When I got to her block, I said a little ‘thank you’. Seconds later, a madman pushing a baby carriage heaped with junk wobbled by. Without saying a word, the man smiled and tipped an imaginary hat at me, as if he were the city’s spokesman acknowledging my thanks.

That is what Carroll is so good at doing, capturing the magic of place that may not be magic at all but it feels a little wonderful. As long as the mystery is low-key, everyday, hovering tentatively, teasingly on the edge of what may or may not be real magic, Carroll is masterful.

When the supernatural crashes into the everyday, he can lose that mastery, as he does here for one wild chapter three quarters of the way into this novel. Then the demonic menace and weird experiences seem no more than the stock in trade of a hundred competent horror writers. Fortunately he recovers, the special effects are swept imperiously aside, and The Marriage of Sticks reasserts itself as a novel that does not need excess, that does not need the grand gesture or the over-ripe paragraph to slip under the skin.

This is a sad story about joy, or perhaps a joyous story about sorrow. It is about what we lose, and how we cope with what we lose, and how life can be good even if it is not the life we wanted. It is the story of Miranda Romanac, who has a good business dealing in rare books, and even if it is not quite what she imagined herself doing it is still a good life. Her major regret as the novel opens is that she lost touch with her high school sweetheart, James Stillman, then, at her high school reunion, a wonderful set piece contrasting dreams and achievements, she learns that James was recently killed in a car crash. This poignant reminder of all she had once planned for her life hardly upsets her apple-cart, life continues, happy and successful. She is introduced to Frances Hatch, a lively 90-year-old who was once the mistress of a string of famous writers and artists in Europe during the 1920s and 30s. She also meets Hugh Oakley, a wealthy art dealer and, despite the fact that Hugh is happily married, the two fall in love. Emotions are the basic tools of all novelists, but some emotions seem harder to pin down on the page than others, and, given how few writers manage it with any conviction, joy would appear to be one of the hardest. Jonathan Carroll portrays joy better than anyone since Jack Finney, and Miranda, through her friendship with Frances and her burgeoning relationship with Hugh, is a wonderfully vivid character.

But there is a shadow over this happiness. At the same time as these two portentous meetings, Miranda sees James Stillman again. Though she cannot interpret the message, clearly something is being said to her from beyond the grave. It can hardly matter, for Hugh leaves his wife and he and Miranda set up home in a large house given to them by Frances. On their very first visit, Miranda sees a little boy enjoying a birthday party there, and is convinced it is the child she and Hugh will have. Then, without warning, Hugh dies. Just as Miranda has to cope with a sudden rush of grief, James returns once more, and the boy, and curious glimpses of Hugh in a life he never had. Now, as the supernatural intrudes with routine horrors while Miranda battles for her soul, the novel briefly loses its grip. It is clearly a mistake, for the moment Miranda recognises the truth about herself in a glimpse of something vampiric stretching back through previous lives, the quiet voice reasserts itself. Her resolution to the situation is both subtle and devastating, and the book becomes once more, in its beautifully controlled final pages, a truly affecting study of loss and memory. Forget the knee-jerk outburst of grand-guignol and this could be one of the finest novels you’ll read this year.