"When anything truly important happens in your life, wherever you happen to be, find a stick in the immediate vicinity and write the occasion and date on it. Keep them together, protect them. There shouldn't be too many; sort through them every few years and separate the events that remain genuinely important from those that were but no longer are. You know the difference. . . ."
When I first saw this book, I was struck by the beautiful cover: two sticks, tangled in twine, on a grey background, white type. Lovely, classic -- and not what you usually see in the spec fic section of the bookstore. Our books too often have lurid covers with scantily clad women on the backs of crimson dragons (I admit a certain fondness for those covers, too; but too many of them, and they quickly become overwhelming). And even if the cover is a little more sedate, it generally has a certain style that signals that 'this is a fantasy (or sf) book!' The Marriage of Sticks has a different kind of cover entirely, a literary sort of cover -- subdued, elegant, classy. This cover art becomes less surprising once you read the back cover and realize that Carroll is generally considered a literary sort of author. I know a lot of spec fic readers tend to shy away from literary books, literary authors. But I'll tell you a secret --he's really one of us.
You get a hint of that at the beginning of the novel. Hints and portents, premonitions. You're not quite sure what they signify -- but then, neither is the narrator, Miranda. She doesn't realize (until much later) that there was something strange happening in her life. "That should have been reason enough to tell me that there was more in the air then than oxygen. Why does it take a lifetime to realize that premonitions are as numerous as birds in a cherry tree?" Odd things happen to her -- just a few at first, and, as the story develops, you could almost forget about them. I almost did. By the third chapter, I had forgotten one of the strongest portents: the woman in the wheelchair on the side of the freeway. Miranda, too, sees her and moves on: "There she was, illuminated by the car in front and then us: a woman sitting in a wheelchair on the shoulder of a superhighway out in the middle of nowhere." I even forgot that there was magic in the story at all.
Instead I got caught up in the story of Miranda Romanac -- a woman who gets everything she wants and yet isn't quite happy. In the first part of the novel, we see her life contrasted with that of her friend Zoe -- Zoe who ". . .was an optimist and, even in the midst of her later torment, believed if she worked hard and remained kind, things would improve." Zoe does everything right, but she never has the good fortune of Miranda. Zoe is a very nice person, a kind one -- and as the novel went on, I became less and less certain that Miranda was nice, or kind. And yet, she was compelling. It takes real skill on the part of a writer to make me keep reading about someone I'm not sure I even like -- Carroll pulls it off.
In part, that's because his protagonist wants things badly --things that she is frightened to reach for. When a character wants something badly, we empathize -- we all know what it is to want something badly. Miranda fiercely regrets the turns her life has taken since high school, the way she has grown cautious, careful, afraid of risk. "That's what was so wonderful. . . about those days -- I was using all my arms and legs and loved it. Today I'd be too scared of the risk. I wish I knew the flavor of my happiness." I watched Miranda go to a high school reunion, hear news of her high school sweetheart, meet a married man, fall in love. These are all ordinary enough events, yet Carroll's description and dialogue are so sharp throughout the book that I stayed completely hooked on the story, turning the pages compulsively.
I wanted to know if Miranda would have sex with Hugh, the married man. "I don't do things like this. It's everything together, full volume. . . . This is all new territory for me." I wanted to know if she would overcome her fears about taking risks, as Hugh urges her to do. "Sit down. Listen to me. It's your heart and the adventurous part all saying go. Our checks and balances hold us back too much from risking anything." I wanted to know what the consequences would be if she did have sex with him. Was it the right decision for her? For him? For his wife, and children? I got caught up in the story of it.
So, I actually forgot about the early hints of magic, because this book is so good, the writing so powerful, that I didn't notice the quiet disappearance of magic from the first half of the book. The story held me, compelled me, until a sudden shock arrived halfway through the novel. . . and then the magic came back, in a sudden, inexplicable flood that suffused and permeated the rest of the story. . . and made you realize it had been there all along.
This is a wonderful book. I want to quote parts to you. I want to discuss it with you. I keep telling friends to buy it, and sometimes I buy them copies. This is one of those rare books that you can fall in love with. This book surprised me over and over again -- and that doesn't happen to me very often these days. I recommend it strongly to you -- and if you buy books for their magic, then I assure you that Carroll will give you plenty of it -- both fantasy-type magic, and the magic of an elegant style, an unpredictable, gripping storyline, and compelling characters who make you think. I'll be thinking about some of the ideas in this novel for a long time to come. I recommend it to you highly.
". . .separate the events that remain genuinely important from those that were but no longer are. You know the difference. Throw the rest out. When you are very old, very sick, or sure there's not much time left to live, put them together and burn them. The marriage of sticks."
Mary Anne Mohanraj is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.