Saturday, 6 July 2002

Jonathan Carroll: The Marriage of Sticks (1999)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 1104

The basic scenario of The Marriage of Sticks is typical, I believe, of Carroll's novels (I've only read one other, The Land of Laughs, but this is what I gather). It starts off naturalistically, but gradually strange things begin to happen. In this case, central character Miranda Romanac attends a high school reunion which is spoilt when she hears that the childhood sweetheart James Stillman she expected to see again died some years ago. Returning to her life as a bookdealer in New York, she makes the acquaintance of a fascinating elderly woman, who knew everyone intimately (people like Hemingway and the famous artists of the twenties). Leaving this woman's apartment, she sees James across the street, which turns out only to be the first in a series of bizarre encounters and events.

Both in this novel and The Land of Laughs, the strange events which happen are connected to ideas about fate. Carroll's first novel is about how it might feel to be part of a book, and know that the events in your life are written as fiction by another. Here, fate is fixed for most people, but Miranda is able to change things. This is described mainly through the effects it has on the lives of the others with whom she interacts - James Stillman doesn't have a life-changing experience when she refuses to go on a teenage spree that would have led to imprisonment; a later lover leaves his wife for her when they were meant to stay together.

The title comes from an idea suggested to Miranda by this lover. When some significant event occurs, find a stick and write the date on it (presumably these characters always carry a penknife and a pen). Keep the sticks to stimulate memories, but when you are old and have no more need of them, put them together and burn them, a fire Carroll calls the marriage of sticks. This is presumably something that will bring a kind of closure, an idea which becomes important in the second part of the novel. (How can a person find closure at the end of their life if it has been deflected from its intended course?)

The Marriage of Sticks is an intense novel, and I found reading it an intense experience. A lot of it is about death and mourning, and it brought back memories of that kind from my own life. Not then for the recently bereaved, but recommended for anyone else.

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