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The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll
(Indigo, 6.99, 282 pages, paperback; first published 1999, this edition 10 August 2000.)

Kissing the Beehive by Jonathan Carroll
(Indigo, 6.99, 251 pages, paperback; first published 1998, this edition 10 August 2000.)

Jonathan Carroll is the person I wish wrote my books. Endorsement enough, I feel, but I suppose I have to say more than that. He has his particular skill - surrealism - down to an art. In earlier novels of his, such as Outside the Dog Museum and The Land of Laughs, it was quite well balanced, but in these two stories his ability to just touch that Reality Setting dial and turn it a few degrees widdershins has become more subtle and more disturbing.

Reading Carroll is the fantasy opposite of reading, say, China Miéville or Mervyn Peake. We aren't in there to love the language and roll around in happy orgies of sensory detail, fun though that might be. Here we just read a story with enough words to say what has to be said and no more. Occasionally the words are measured and distancing and they're never less than very self-aware and laced with unspoken irony but the story itself is sufficient, and in both these novels that's a mighty strange and scary thing. I will not be summarising the plots and ruining it all here.

Both are written from the first person intimate viewpoint and are set in Crane's View, New York. They are carefully crafted books and their insights into the narrator characters are sensitively handled as these people go through the full range of their experience-potential.

Both novels also feature one of Carroll's favourite characters, Frannie McCabe the police chief of the small town, although he plays counterpoint to the central characters, helping them in and out of trouble. I suppose if you were writing a thesis you could make a lot of mileage out of McCabe as the touchstone who defines the other people as they are 'sucked back' simultaneously to the town of their childhood (Crane's View) and to realities which, like the Levi's ad, are 'twisted to fit'. McCabe is a part of the odd world, but he also insulates you against the worst of it as and when he chooses to.

However, the two books do not deal with similar psychic or surreal themes. The Marriage of Sticks is a woman's story of life, love and loss and contains genuinely supernatural events which it would only disappoint you to understand before reading the story. It begins innocently, as these things appear to, with a return home for the School Reunion where the heroine Miranda Romanac learns to her great dismay that her first love - a man whom she had extensively and elaborately fantasised about meeting again - is already dead. Her disappointment crashes into the barriers of shock when she sees him shortly afterwards in New York itself. He appears to wave at her from across the street.

Kissing The Beehive is a host of real-not-surreal life events centred on the murder of a beautiful and talented young woman whose various reputations as genius and man-eater seduce all those who knew her. This event has trapped its witnesses inside a past which has an atavistic and quasi-supernatural power to compel them, none less than the hero, whose confounded desire and dreams about the dead girl make him vulnerable to the truth. The story mesmerises the reader effortlessly as he revisits the past, unpicks its secrets and discovers its horrible old bones.

Of all there is to enjoy in being led by the nose through a fascinating labyrinth perhaps the best part is the knowledge that what you find won't let you down. In both these tales the reader may be delightfully wrong-footed by apparently psychopathic characters turning out to be only moderately damaged goods in the most normal sense, leaving us questioning our own projections about other people's behaviour. We also have to examine our own natural inclination to paint narrators as the good guys when we're shown elements of McCabe and our heroes as less than white by every turn. There is death, there is violence, there is the subtle smell of rot and brimstone as the books oscillate, keeping you teetering on the brink of the real and the unreal right to the last minute.

God, it's just such fun!

Review by Justina Robson.

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© Justina Robson 28 July 2001