Jonathan Carroll, Vista, £6.99, pbk, ISBN 0-575-60281-3, 1998 / Gollancz, 16.99, hrdbk, ISBN 0-575-06615-6, 1999
Jonathan Carroll's two most recent books show up his strengths and weaknesses nicely. Kissing the Beehive is Carroll at his best: Samuel Bayer, a novelist, returns to his home town to release his writer's block by writing about a girl who died when he was in high school. He meets a fan of his called Veronica Lake and they fall in love, though the affair is stormy. Carroll's delineation of character is excellent, especially that of Lake, whose love of life has made her into a very odd character indeed.
Carroll's ability to describe various ways of life, and especially the joys and sorrows of intensely lived existence give the book a real zest, and his way of throwing in odd coincidences keeps you slightly off centre as an interesting mystery plot unfolds. The ending is perhaps not as strong as it could be, but Kissing the Beehive is a very satisfying read.
On the other hand, we have The Marriage of Sticks: here the main character, Miranda Romanac, again finds herself in a new love affair, and involved in mysterious events - though there's a more obvious hint of the supernatural, as she sees her dead former boyfriend early in the novel. All seems to be shaping up for a nicely maintained story in the Carrollian mould, until Miranda's new lover dies unexpectedly, and the novel nosedives into a bizarre mishmash of ever more improbable events, tied together only loosely by the fact that Miranda is the inheritor of a magical gift, and has to decide what to do with it.
The second part of the novel just doesn't work for me at all, and even on its own terms, it's difficult to take the moral of the story seriously, as so many arbitrary events take place that it becomes difficult to sympathise with the characters.
There's no doubt Carroll is an extremely talented writer, but it doesn't take much variation in the story to tip his prose from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Sam Bayer, an author with writerís block, decides to write up his experience of having discovered a dead body when he was younger. But, when it is discovered that he is raking over this old territory, a terrifying new series of killings occur, despite the fact that the man convicted of the original killing is now long-dead himself. What light can Samís new girlfriend, Veronica, and his daughterís new boyfriend throw on events? And what does the police chief, ex-high school thug Francis McCabe, think is going on?
Carrollís writing is flawless in this small town mystery, and his characters all live and breathe on every page. There is love and good humour throughout this book, and the twisting plot keeps you turning the page from beginning to end. If youíve not encountered Carroll before, this is as good a place to start as any.
The casual reader may find themselves overwhelmed as the plot unfolds in this ghost-infested love story, not to mention the purposeful mixture of the everyday world with bizarre and surreal events, but lovers of Carrollís work should be able to take it all in their stride. Miranda Romanac discovers her high-school sweetheart is dead, but then sees him waving to her on a New York street just as she is about to embark on a love affair with a married man. She shortly encounters Frances Hatch, the aging former mistress of many artists in 1920ís Paris, and is given a house in Craneís View where more ghostly encounters occur. What light can Frances shed on the goings-on with her tales of former lover The Enormous Shumda, and does police chief Francis McCabe have anything to offer? By the end of this book you should want to meet every major character in real life. Itís quite clear that Carroll loves them all. A triumph.
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