Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Book Review: Some Kind of Fairytale by Graham Joyce

As some of you will know, I'm a regular book reviewer on The Kerry McLean Show on BBC Radio Ulster. Today I reviewed Some Kind of Fairytale by the late and much-lamented Graham Joyce. If you missed it you can listen here for the next 4 weeks (from 43 mins in) but here's a written review.

This book is perfect for anyone who loves a modern fairy story; the kind that has a twist and a sting in the tale. It opens on Christmas day in the East Midlands, England. Mary and Dell Martin are just about to eat their Christmas dinner when there’s a knock at their door. When they open it, it’s their daughter Tara. Nothing unusual here – until we learn that Tara disappeared 20 years earlier and hasn’t been seen since.
 
When her brother Peter gets the phone call he hurries to his parents’ house and finds his long-lost sister physically unchanged. She still looks like a fifteen year old and swears she has only been gone for six months. The rest of the book explores not just what happened to Tara in the intervening years but the impact her disappearance had on her family and her then teenage boyfriend Richie.
 
If you're familiar with Joyce's work, you'll know he's a really deceptive writer. He tells his stories very simply but he manages to talk about some really profound stuff without ever seeming pompous. I think this is because all his stories are rooted firmly in the characters he creates. A theme he returns to again and again in his books is just how thin the veil is between ‘normal’ life and what we could call ‘the other’. So in Year of the Ladybird and The Silent Land he writes about the thin line between life and death; in this book it’s about the line between our world and the fairy world, if we believe Tara’s account of what happened to her. His books work well on either level – you can read them as fantasy or you can read them as being wholly set in our world.
 
The fairies themselves certainly aren’t winged critters at the bottom of the garden; they’re like very attractive, unfettered versions of us, living in communes, driven by their appetites and pleasure (so there are some fairly earthy sex scenes in the book and some equally earthy language). Some ideas are borrowed from Irish fairy folklore – the idea of beautiful but spiteful fairies, living in a realm where time moves differently. Hiero (pronounced 'Yarrow') is incredibly attractive for all his dark side (if he'd offered to take me away on his white horse you wouldn't have seen me for dust so it's impossible to blame Tara). Interestingly Joyce weaves in real court transcripts from the trial of Michael Cleary, convicted for the murder of his wife Bridget Cleary in 1895 because he believed she had been taken by the fairies and a changeling left in her place.
 
Still, fairies aside, Joyce never loses sight of the fact that the real action of the book is set in this world. Yes, there may or may not be another realm but he is interested in what’s going on in this one and how the characters cope with Tara’s return; how she tries to make amends. One of the most interesting characters is Richie, Tara’s boyfriend at the time of her disappearance, and blamed for it by most of the community. He’s nearly 40 when Tara returns and his life is in ruins. He was a talented guitarist but now he’s a heavy drinker, suffering agonising headaches and a bad case of arrested development. In his own way he has lost twenty years too and has to rebuild his life, just as Tara has.
 
No writer is perfect and Joyce hits two jarring notes. There's an occasional clunky line of dialogue. Ninety percent of the time his characters rings absolutely true; then every so often there's a throwaway line so wrong that it makes me wince. 
 
More seriously his endings don't always live up to the start of his books. I've had this experience with both The Silent Land and Some Kind of Fairytale. I think it might be because his books are so enthralling and atmospheric that we expect something absolutely staggering at the end and he doesn't always pull it off. In this book the last few pages went a bit awry for me – there was a whole ‘unreliable narrator’ twist that jarred me right out of the story. I've decided to forget about the last 4 pages of the book and hold on to the rest! Similarly I didn't like the overly neat end of The Silent Land but so much of the book was haunting and beautiful that the best bits have stayed with me. I've managed to hold on to the feeling behind the book; a testament to the power of Joyce's ability to create mood and character.
 
Joyce was a beautiful writer – a storyteller who prided himself on writing from the heart, not from the thesaurus (he had an online debate with Will Self on this very topic). His legacy is in his books – they are about love, loss and how magical our lives are, even in the most ordinary of moments. And yes, there are other worlds behind the veil but for Joyce the real magic is in our loves and hopes in the here and now and what we do with them.

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