This round-up review of three novels by Graham Joyce, The Silent Land (2010), Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012) and The Year of the Ladybird (2013) first appeared in Vector 275, Spring 2014.
The thing about fantasy, at least that which takes myth, legend or fairy tale as its point of origin, which is most of it, is that we know the story. We know that the prince will claim his throne, that the evil witch will be defeated; that’s the whole point. Fantasy isn’t meant to surprise us with newness but to confirm the eternal, to show us that patterns of story that have stayed more or less the same throughout the ages still shape the ways we see the world. The worst fantasy takes this as an excuse to repeat exactly what has gone before, in doing so they mistake the story for the telling and so feel tired and derivative as a result. The best fantasy sees that novelty lies not in the story but in the telling, and so constantly reshapes the ancient narratives. This is the way that eternal stories continue to resonate in a modern age. This is the way that Graham Joyce writes.
We know, within a page or two of the start of these novels, what is the story we are being told and how it must therefore end. We know, when Zoe and Jake survive an avalanche and return to a town emptied and silent from which they cannot leave, that we are of course in a limbo after death. We know, when Tara returns home after twenty years looking no older than when she disappeared, that she has been away with the fairies and what that must betoken for her future. We know, when David returns to the town where his father died, that the ghostly figures he glimpses on the beach will somehow reopen and repair that ancient wound. All of that is known, and none of it is relevant. The operative word is ‘return’, because these are stories of eternal return whose very familiarity is what is important about them.
If The Silent Land is the least satisfactory of the three novels under review, it is because Joyce sticks most closely to the story we recognise. Zoe and Jake are a married couple who have been together long enough to know each other quite well, but maybe not long enough for Zoe to be sure how Jake will react when she tells him she is pregnant. Then, on a skiing holiday in the Pyrenees, Jake accidently sets off an avalanche. When they manage to dig themselves out and get back to their hotel they find it deserted, though the power is still on, fires are still lit, fresh food is laid out in the kitchen ready for cooking. The same is true of the rest of the village, but when they try to phone out they get no signal, when they try to leave they are unable to do so. Then eerie things start to happen, candles stay lit without burning down, food stays fresh when left out for days, they can drink as much wine as they like without getting drunk but it seems to have no flavour, and the dog that Jake had as a child reappears. To be fair, within this cessation of time, Zoe and Jake are only a beat or two behind the reader in recognising that this must be some sort of afterlife.
Then time reasserts itself, and indeed starts to move more quickly than ever. Food rots, candles dwindle, fires burn out in minutes, and suddenly everything acquires a strange urgency. At first the pair had treated this limbo as an extension of their holiday, spending the days skiing and the evenings enjoying the best food and wine, but now as they sense an approaching climax and strange, threatening figures start to appear in the snow, they struggle to find purpose in all of this. The purpose turns out, movingly if somewhat prosaically, to be love. Joyce beautifully and powerfully portrays the relationship between the two, not as some saccharine romance but as a jagged thing of irritation and defensiveness and need and delight.
Joyce’s prose is glorious, his characterisation utterly convincing, but we have, of course, seen these afterlives before and there isn’t quite enough here to make this telling of the story unfamiliar and fresh. That is certainly not the case with the best of these novels, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, which wrings surprise after surprise out of this most familiar story. One spring morning, after breaking up with her boyfriend, Tara walks away into the bluebell woods where she meets a man on a white horse who takes her away into a realm of sexual licence and sudden violence. Because of the arcane rules that govern the interrelationship of the land of fairy and our own world, she must wait six months before she can return, and when she does so she finds it is Christmas Day twenty years later.
So far, so conventional, but what makes this novel so effective is that Joyce concentrates on those she left behind, those who have grown old in her absence. Her parents are at first just delighted to have her back, they don’t want to ask questions, they don’t want to know where she was, but gradually they begin to doubt, to regard her with unease, to become distant. Her brother Peter, once academically promising but now making a career for himself as a farrier and with a chaotic family of his own, cannot bring himself to believe her story. Meanwhile, Peter’s one-time best friend and Tara’s former boyfriend, Richie, was suspected by the police of killing Tara. He spent time in prison, his friendship with Peter ended, and a once-promising musical career was frittered away on booze and drugs. These are damaged people, and though Tara’s return does help to rekindle the friendship between Peter and Richie, there isn’t really the healing that any of them might have hoped for from her return. It doesn’t help that one of the fairies seems to have returned with Tara and is intent on causing mayhem, while Richie has suddenly developed a life-threatening brain tumor that may or may not be connected with her return. In short, we realise quite early in the novel that Tara’s reappearance is not in itself a happy ending.
One of the things that makes this novel so powerful is that Joyce tells his fragmented story through the eyes and sometimes in the voices of several different characters. Tara, of course, tells of her experiences in the other world, a mixture of conventional fairy tale tropes and a sort of hippyish anarchy that is, in truth, the least interesting part of the novel. But this is contrasted with the dry reports of the old and rather eccentric psychiatrist that Peter insists she should visit, who points out the conventional nature of the tropes she uses and offers psychologically insightful interpretations of her story. This counterpoint is fascinating because, as readers, we believe Tara’s story at least in so far as we know we are reading a fantasy novel, but our doubts and questions are incorporated into the story through the rationalisations of the appropriately named Dr Underwood.
Alongside these two voices we get several others, though perhaps the most interesting is when we see through the eyes of Peter’s son, Jack, who accidentally kills a neighbour’s cat with his new air rifle. This accident forces him, tentatively and unwillingly, to make contact with the old lady, who in turn has what proves to be important information for Tara. Lives interlock, and Tara’s absence from these lives for twenty years has meant that precious linkages have not been forged. The old romantic image of going to live with the fairies has here been deftly transformed into an acute and startling story of social and psychological damage.
The most recent of these novels, The Year of the Ladybird, does not quite have the impact of Some Kind of Fairy Tale for the simple reason that it is, perhaps, not a fantasy novel at all. Or to put it another way, apart from one brief, powerful but ambiguous scene, the fantastic plays no necessary part in the novel.
What we have is a coming-of-age story set in the long hot summer of 1976. It was a year of drought, a year of searing summer heat that did not break until September, a year in which, in Joyce’s memory, there was a plague of ladybirds. It was also a year in which the Labour Government of James Callaghan (who had just replaced Harold Wilson) was losing control of the economy to all-powerful unions, prompting an upsurge in right wing protest movements which saw unexpected electoral success by the racist British National Party. It is in this fevered atmosphere that Joyce’s student hero, David Barwise, gets a summer job as a ‘Greencoat’ at a holiday camp in Skegness. The Greencoats (clearly analogous to the famous Redcoats of the Butlins Holiday Camps) run every aspect of the entertainments provided for the holidaymakers, so David spends his days organising sandcastle building competitions, pretending to be a pirate, judging Glamorous Granny contests, setting up the nightly variety shows, and so forth. As the country becomes more affluent and starts taking its summer holidays in Spain, the holiday camp is a dying institution, nevertheless the work is both exhausting and satisfying, particularly as David discovers he has a real talent for working with children.
Behind the scenes, things are less happy. Several members of staff are in the BNP and mistake David for a sympathiser, so he finds himself inadvertently caught up in their thuggish politics. This does not go down well with the mixed-race dancer, Nikki, with whom he starts an affair. At the same time one of the most brutal of the BNP members, Colin, is driven by a mad jealousy of his wife, Terri, who works as a cleaner at the camp, and he browbeats David into spying on her unaware that David is actually having a sexual relationship with Terri. When Terri disappears, David fears the worst, and also imagines that he may be in danger himself.
With all of this going on, and Joyce tells a vivid and thrilling story, it seems unnecessary to add in the extra complication of a ghost story. David’s parents split up when he was very young, and one day his father took him away from home to Skegness, where he died in mysterious circumstances. David has only the sketchiest memory of these events, but now he is in Skegness he begins to see the faceless figures of a man and a boy. This haunting has only the barest interaction with the plethora of other events going on, and the resolution, though chillingly done, seems almost anticlimactic when compared to the dangers, political complications and complex love stories that are also going on.
The thing to note in all of this is how good a writer Graham Joyce is. He has absolute control of his prose, which can be lush or staccato, soothing or jagged to suit the requirements of the story from moment to moment. All three novels are firmly anchored in the real, so that the fantastic, which seems to grow out of the mundane rather than being imposed upon it, is that much more convincing. In fact, The Year of the Ladybird could well have been a straightforward mainstream novel without losing any of its impact. But when he gets the balance just right between the real and the fantastic, as he does in Some Kind of Fairy Tale, the result is a work of stunning accomplishment that will live with me for some time to come.