Smoking Poppy by Graham Joyce
Hardcover - 288 pages (18 October, 2001) Gollancz; ISBN: 0575072296
Review by John Berlyne
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

Graham Joyce is undoubtedly one of the finest British writers around at the moment. Actually, other than our justified patriotic pride in him him, the fact that he's British is really immaterial. Joyce is simply one of the finest writers around -- full stop! He specializes in an area of the genre others can only approach tentatively. That gossamer thin divide between the real and the unreal, truth and imagination, fact and fantasy  Joyce patrols the borders of both territories with a confidence and style that never ceases to impress me.

The core of what Joyce explores in his work comes from deep inside his characters, from those dark and shadowy places where we keep our shameful secrets, our petty jealousies and our guilt. What recurs in his work is how these hidden things manifest themselves, whether it be in dreams (see Dreamside,) in psychology (see The Storm Watcher,) in apparent physical form (see The Tooth Fairy,) or in the transformation of the protagonist themselves (see Dark Sister).

In his new novel, Smoking Poppy, the hidden things are bottled up inside Danny Innes. Things could be better for Danny. Recently separated from his wife, he's finding life on his own hard going. He goes down the pub to drown his sorrows, but he's lonely and out on a limb. He doesn't engage well with people. His wife has run off with another bloke, his student daughter won't speak to him and his son has turned to the Good Book. Even his best mate Mick seems no more to him than a quiz night team college and though Mick may lack some social grace, Danny's attitude is starting to piss him off. "For three years, " he says, " I've asked you what sort of day you've had, and for three years you've given me the same answer. You're a skinflint. A miser with information." Danny wonders how it all went so pear shaped. When did his wife, his kids stop loving him?

A phone call from his wife distracts him from this self-loathing with news that their daughter Charlotte has been arrested in Thailand for smuggling drugs. Drugs? These are anathema to Danny. He reads up on Keats and Coleridge, on De Quincy and Baudelaire but none of these literary addicts can help him fathom why Charlotte would be involved with narcotics.

Accompanied by Mick and his bible-bashing son, Phil  - both of whose presence he objects to  - Danny travels to Chiang Mai following his impulse to do what he can for his daughter. But on arrival, the mystery deepens. The girl in the prison has Charlie's passport  but she's not Danny's daughter. What follows is an exciting and dangerous journey as Danny, Phil and Mick (the three of them as much   out of their depth in cacophonous and temptation filled bustle of Chaing Mai city as they are in the spirit infested wilds of the deep jungle) attempt to track Charlie down.

Ultimately Smoking Poppy is about redemption and deliverance. Danny must come to terms with his life and through the extraordinary series of events he finds himself catapulted into, he learns the curses as well as the blessings of fatherhood. It is a hugely insightful and sensitive piece of writing in which clearly Joyce examines his own parental anxieties - he has two children of his own - and by the end the catharsis that has occurred, both for the reader and the characters, is crystal clear. Smoking Poppy is perhaps less of a genre novel than some of Joyce's previous works. There are hints of the supernatural at work, but really this is a story that takes place in a brutally real world. Even so, it will appeal to those familiar with Joyce's writing  - and to those that have yet to discover him you have a treat in store.

2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu