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The Wooden Sea
Jonathan Carroll
Tor Books/ Victor Gollancz, 302 pages

Rafal Olbinski
The Wooden Sea

Joe del Tufo
The Wooden Sea
Jonathan Carroll
Jonathan Carroll was born in 1949 in New York. His father was a screenwriter; his mother an actress and lyricist. He attended Rutgers University then the University of Virginia. He became an English teacher, eventually moving to the American International School in Vienna, Austria, in 1974. Carroll still lives in Vienna with his family.

Jonathan Carroll Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Jonathan Carroll
SF Site Reading List: Jonathan Carroll
SF Site Review: The Land of Laughs
SF Site Review: The Marriage of Sticks and Kissing the Beehive
SF Site Review: The Marriage of Sticks
SF Site Review: Kissing the Beehive
SF Site Review: From The Teeth of Angels

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

I'm only slightly acquainted with the work of Jonathan Carroll: I've read one early novel (Bones of the Moon) and several short stories that have appeared in genre sources, such as "Uh-Oh City." Still, I had an idea what to expect: a contemporary setting, veering off into very strange territory at some time; an ordinary person, deeply in love, faced with an unexpected and unexplainable threat to those he loves; and fine writing with a mixture of almost goofy humour and wrenching tragedy. And that's what we get here. (Writers who come to mind as comparison points are William Browning Spencer, Jonathan Lethem, and Bradley Denton.)

The Wooden Sea is narrated by Frannie McCabe, the 47-year old police chief of a small town, Crane's View, New York. Frannie is on his second marriage, and he has a teenage stepdaughter. He is sometimes plagued by the town's collective memory: he was rather a juvenile delinquent as a youth, and, in high school, he dated the girl who is now the mayor; but by and large he seems respected and happy. One day he adopts, almost perforce, a sickly three-legged dog named Old Vertue -- within a few days the dog is dead, and Frannie's attempts to bury the dog seem to set in motion a series of increasingly surrealistic events.

The strangeness starts out small, as it were: the buried dog disappears, and needs to be reburied. The dog turns up again, sort of, in an Old Master painting. And a high school girl dies of an overdose, leaving behind a notebook with tantalizing hints that she too was involved in these strange events.

From this point things become very odd indeed. The novel involves trips both forward and backward in time. Frannie's 17-year old self becomes a major character, as does a sinister businessman from decades in the future. Frannie finds himself presented with an ultimatum -- figure out what he needs to do in a week, or else -- with almost no idea of what he is to figure out, or what the "else" is. And this is to say nothing of the gods and/or aliens.

In a way, this book might be called "Science Fiction Magical Realism": it uses Science Fictional imagery in ways reminiscent of how more usual "Magical Realism" uses Fantastical imagery. (This is a term I've also been tempted to apply to Bruce Sterling's Zeitgeist and M. John Harrison's Signs of Life, though I ought to emphasize that in most ways, these three novels are very different from each other.) On first reading, I had some difficulty with this: there's a temptation to make the book be about the Science Fictional events, and it really doesn't work that way. They don't end up making outward sense, and they aren't really properly resolved. But reading the book more as a mainstream (or, dare I say, slipstream) novel -- that is, as a story about the life of Francis McCabe -- works much better. We get a portrait of a believable man, a good man, and a happy man, facing a crisis from out of nowhere. The characters are very nicely done: Frannie, his younger self, his wife Magda and stepdaughter Pauline, his strange neighbour George Dalemwood. The action, for all its weirdness, is always interesting, though at times I felt a bit disconnected from things: at times things simply got too weird. The resolution is moving and bittersweet.

The Wooden Sea is a fine new novel from a very interesting writer.

Copyright © 2001 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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