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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Marriage of Sticks

Jonathan Carroll

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To purchase The Marriage of Sticks

Title: The Marriage of Sticks
Author: Jonathan Carroll
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 282 pages
Availability: The Marriage of Sticks - US
The Marriage of Sticks - UK
The Marriage of Sticks - Canada
Le bûcher des immortels - France
Fieberglas - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : the usual unusual Carroll-fare, well done.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Fantasy & Sci. Fi. A 12/1999 Charles De Lint
FAZ . 11/5/2002 Dietmar Dath
The Guardian B 9/9/2000 Isobel Montgomery
TLS . 2/7/1999 Thomas MacFaul

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Marriage of Sticks is classic Carroll: witty, wise, strange, elusive, immediate. What's especially fascinating about a Carroll fantasy is, while the fantastic elements may be outrageous, the real world elements can be even more off the wall." - Charles De Lint, Fantasy & Science Fiction

  • "Carrolls Roman ist die Chronik so einer Holzverbrennung: traurig, trocken und schön. Wenn er so erfolgreich ist, wie zu wünschen wäre, darf man hoffen, daß es auch den durch eine Reihe von inhaltlichen und motivischen Korrespondenzen damit verbundenen, noch schöneren Nachfolger The Wooden Sea bald auf deutsch geben wird." - Dietmar Dath, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Carroll has composed a finely written page-turner, but he dips his hand into too many styles on the way for this to be a truly satisfying book." - Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian

  • "The salad of mythologies, involving pre-destination, alternative realities and reincarnation, works surprisingly well. The unfolding of the plot pulls the reader through a succession of strikingly bizarre incidents which are recounted in a languid prose style -- the narrative voice merges with that of Frances and avoids sounding a note of hysteria -- that suggests a delicate and distant irony." - Thomas MacFaul, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jonathan Carroll has always seemed to us the prototypical American novelist, a bit simple with regards to all aspects of writing (language, characterization, plot), everything nicely black and white, evil's temptations balanced by some sort of redemption (however unlikely), generous, ambitious (with the works almost never living up to that ambition). Obviously we are wrong: for all the American flavour and settings of his fictions they have never made their mark with an American audience. Oddly, though, he is an international literary figure (at least in the popular sense): maybe it's what the world at large sees as "American" and Americans see as decidedly not.
       The Marriage of Sticks follows a predictable pattern of publication for Carroll as well: publication abroad (in this case in a most attractive Gollancz edition), long before it arrives on American shores. A shame, indeed. Carroll has his weaknesses but he is an interesting writer and he deserves an audience. And, it seems to us, his writing should resonate particularly well with an American audience.
       The Marriage of Sticks is a fine book. It centers around Miranda Romanac and her life and loves. Miranda tells most of the story, in the form of the reminiscences of an old lady. Years earlier, at her fifteenth high school reunion, she learned that her former beau had died three years earlier. This information, and other occurrences, trigger her discovery of who she really is -- an excursion into Carroll's world of the supernatural.
       After she has learned of his death Miranda thinks she sees her old high school love, waving at her on the street, and she has numerous other unusual experiences. Surprisingly, however, for much of the book -- a good two-thirds -- Carroll keeps a tight leash on the unnatural goings-on. He has always been good at dosing his stories, building up well to point where all belief is suspended, and here he is more on his game than he has been since his first novels. He is particularly good here, for long stretches, truly springing surprises on his readers and doing so with remarkable restraint (which makes them all the more effective).
       Miranda falls in love with a married man, Hugh Oakley, and she is introduced to an unusual and very old woman, Frances Hatch. There are flaws in the writing -- enamored Miranda is not entirely credible, Hugh is too good to be true (except to his wife and two kids, abandoned at the drop of a hat), Frances' age is not credibly portrayed -- but we found this a thoroughly enjoyable part of the novel, describing a generally (or at least relatively) mundane life. Continuing for almost two-thirds of the novel, it was a pleasant pleasure to read.
       The came what Carroll is best known for -- his "magical" embellishments -- and the story takes a somewhat different path. Carroll has interesting ideas, and he manages to convey them fairly interestingly. His explanation of what Miranda is -- we won't give it away, but suffice it to say that she sees what others' lives might have been (for example what would have become of her high school boyfriend if he had not died) and she is in some way responsible for what became of them instead -- is really not a bad idea at all. Unfortunately, Carroll convinces Miranda (and the reader) of the truth behind it all with a bit too much hocus-pocus. We don't mind a bit of fantasy, but deep down we are realists, and Carroll's flights of fancy are to fanciful. There are moments when it merely seems that he is rubbing it in the reader's face. He is the author and he can do whatever he wants, but he does go overboard on occasion, his turns of fact beyond both belief and reason.
       For all the burning dogs (don't ask) and odd apparitions, Carroll does engage his reader. He works awfully hard at his writing. He has the "magical" stuff down pat (regrettably -- it gets him labeled as a one trick pony and his true talents lie elsewhere) and that seems to bring the readers in, but he is a truly fine storyteller who could have more to say. Lading his fiction with homilies and clever sayings and thoughts (so for example the idea of the "marriage of sticks", which Hugh introduces Miranda to) one sometimes suspects that he was born to be a preacher man (his engagingly clumsy prose, wrestled into shape, reinforces the thought). In fact, he is a solid novelist who gets carried away with his ideas and his sincerity.
       We liked this novel. There are bizarre turns, in the writing, in the plot, but ultimately they did not bother us. It is the rare book where the author means well and where that is enough to sustain it. Most people are not to be endured when they mean well, but Jonathan Carroll manages to do it consistently through his writing: an admirable quality. The fantastic might sell his books, but we believe that it is the mundane that Carroll does best. His eye for the small detail -- and it is small details that fill his books -- is what wins us over. At the beginning of this novel there is an embarrassing scene in which one of Miranda's boyfriends asks her to go shopping with him, just for the pleasure of shopping for inessentials at the local drugstore with someone one cares for. It is ridiculous, more so because Miranda knows it means something to her bedmate and not as much to her, and few authors would even attempt such a scene. Carroll does, again and again, and it is a broad and surprisingly fascinating canvas he finally paints this way.
       He has not lived in America for decades, but his is an American voice and he still gets the details about the US right (leaving aside this book's gaol and the character in hospital). Perhaps he cuts too close to the heart and that is why Americans have not properly taken to him.
       This is one of his better books, no question, hurt only by the fact that he refuses to do without the magical guise that blurs his vision (yes, it makes it "easier" to convey his message, but it also undermines the message).

       We recommend the book. Carroll fans will certainly not be disappointed. Others might not warm to his unusual style, but it is a good, straightforward read, not too overwhelmed by the world of fantasy (there is really only a stretch of twenty or thirty pages that goes that way -- though fans might claim that is the heart of the matter). Worth reading, we think. Give him a try.

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Reviews: Jonathan Carroll: Other books by Jonathan Carroll under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       American author Jonathan Carroll was born in 1949. He graduated from Rutgers University and the University of Virginia, and has lived most his life in Vienna, Austria, where he teaches at the American International School.

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