Facts of Life by Graham Joyce
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN 057507230X. PubDate Dec 02
Review by John Berlyne
288 pages List price £12.99
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Graham Joyce is a writer clearly at the top of his game. It is no accident that his mantle-piece is no doubt bowing under the weight of the awards he has garnered over the last few years and it amazes me to think of how he finds the time to write his fiction, whilst simultaneously writing screenplays for the movie adaptations of his optioned novels. He's certainly finding the time somewhere though, and his latest, The Facts of Life, confirms once again, both the strength of his imagination and the delicacy of his touch.
I've written before about Joyce's specialty - that his fiction sits as if on the cliff's edge of reality looking over the sea of possibilities that genre presents. Joyce's fiction remains "realistic" - at least in so far as the people and settings are recognizably part of our own lives, but tantalizingly and consistently, his stories give a nod towards the fantastical and often, the macabre. His last novel, Smoking Poppy, told of a man's journey to the Far East to find his drug-smuggler daughter, and the tale ventured into supernatural territory without ever obviously seeming to do so. This motif of the fantastical being just hidden under the surface is a regular feature in Joyce's work and in The Facts of Life, he reinvents and re-explores it once more.
Here we have the story of seven sisters and their matriarchal mother, Martha. Set during the second world war in Coventry, a city in the heart of the British midlands, the book opens with Cassie, the youngest daughter, flighty and unstable, refusing to give up her baby boy. Martha has doubts as to Cassie's suitability as a mother, but feels bound to support her choice. It feels right on a gut, instinctive level - something integral to this novel. So the boy, Frank, is raised by all the sisters, spending a year or two with each, before being passed along to the next and though unorthodox, the system seems to suit. For the reader, this journey with Frank through the years of his infancy is entirely engrossing. Joyce handles his large cast with complete confidence and ease and whether the boy is living on the farm with his aunt Una or is the focus of attention in aunt Beattie's radically political Oxford commune, our attention never wavers.
Set against this constant moving, we learn that the boy is "gifted". He can see the dead just as his mother and grandmother can. When he goes to live with his spinster aunts, spiritualist church goers (who ironically lack anything of the gift themselves) , his presence at a sťance gives rise to some concern and from there the boy moves on to stay with Aida and her husband Gordon, an embalmer of the dead. It's quite a childhood!
The main ingredients here - death, sex and magic - are subtly mixed in by Joyce and his light touch is, as ever, a pleasure for the reader. Added to this is the sheer quality of the writing and there is a particularly memorable sequence depicting the blitz on Coventry that alone may have Joyce's mantle-piece groaning under more statuettes. Of the air raid sirens he writes superbly ... "That sour, almost forlorn howl dragged up from the lowest place on earth, fattening and rising into a despairing moan, climbing at last until it wails, fighting to live at its uppermost note until it falls back, uselessly, defeated, and then climbs again, wanting to infect with its own panic." I found this a wonderfully warm and uplifting book which is odd, given the subjects it is concerned with and the hard times in which it is set. That the author can find aspects to celebrate in such a setting further confirms his extraordinary talents. The Facts of Life is a most memorable addition to the Joyce canon and comes with my highest recommendation.