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Featured Review

Joyce plays us all like a bloody banjo -- and it's a fine tune

By Paula Guran

Graham Joyce
Atria / 294 p / $24
ISBN 0-7434-6342-0
June 2003

Once in a rare while, a book reaches out and grabs you. It gets hold of you emotionally in a way that's hard to understand and impacts you with the force of a hurricane. Nails you to the wall, it does, and even makes you bleed a little. Graham Joyce's novel THE FACTS OF LIFE did that to me.

I can't promise that it will do the same to you. I suspect you may have to have a few years under your belt to appreciate the novel fully. But even at half-gale force, it's still a hell of a book.

On the surface, it's the story of the Vine family of Coventry, England during World War II and the years after. The focus is on young Frank, the illegitimate son of Cassie, the flighty youngest of seven sisters. Cassie is too unstable to care for an infant herself, but is unwilling to give him up for adoption. Matriarch Martha determines that the entire family will share in raising Frank, "Turn and turn about." Since Martha can play them all "like a bloody banjo" the matter is settled.

Martha is the vital heart of the Vines. Her seven daughters, their mates and offspring, orbit around her as if she were a mighty planet and they her multitude of moons -- separate, but held in the universe by her natural force. Or perhaps that's "supernatural force" since Martha quietly receives inspirational otherworldly messages and has precognitive dreams; a knock on her door may as easily come from a visiting spirit as from the postman. Of all her children, only Cassie possesses similar "special" abilities. Cassie's "gift" is wilder and uncontrollable and leads to "blue patches" of self-destructive depression. It is soon apparent that Frank, too, is "special," and Martha realizes he must be particularly protected.

U.S. CoverJoyce follows the family members through a decade of sharing in the care of Frank. Vivid and affectionately characterized, the Vines are both uniquely eccentric and a microcosm of post-war Britain. After three years with Martha, Cassie and Frank go to live with sister Una and her farmer-husband Tom Tufnel. (The sisters are named alphabetically by vowel -- Aida is the eldest, followed by twins Evelyn and Ina, Olive, and Una. Having run out of vowels, Martha started on consonants, ending with Beatrice and Cassie.) When Una has twins of her own, Frank and his mum go to the spinster twin sisters Evelyn and Ina. The twins are involved with spiritualists who wish to kindly exploit Frank's abilities. Next they live in an eccentric, intellectual, sexually "liberated," radical (and hilarious) commune in Oxford with Beatie, the sister afflicted with "too many brains," and her partner Bernard. After another stint with Martha, Frank goes to live with his Aunt Aida. Aida's husband Gordon is a mortician with a "home office"--a small mortuary behind his house. Olive and her husband William wind up not participating in Frank's upbringing. They have their own brood to contend with as well as a marriage troubled by William's affair with a dead comrade's widow. Joyce reveals these characters primarily through the story of William's extramarital activities with the widow Rita and later with Olive's bitter feud with Aida.

Throughout his peripatetic familial upbringing, Frank frequently visits the Tufnel farm -- where his great secret, the mysterious "The-Man-Behind-The-Glass," is buried in a field.

The novel is a nostalgic and warm examination of the strength of a family and the meaning of love. But it is also more than that. There's a completeness to this story. Not so much in its narrative progression from point "A" to point "Z," but in its all-incompassing humanity. Joyce presents a story that includes birth, life, death, all the mysteries between, and some of that which is beyond. He makes it whole in a way few writers can.

U.K. CoverBut, there's still more to it. Martha, living in an ancient city being bombed into oblivion, is -- unlike most 20th century Westerners -- still connected to the living universe. Western culture has devised a world where everything is objectified and "reason" supposedly reigns. Humanity, as it seeks to control the world, manipulates and exploits it; literally destroys it with the ever-rational machinery of war. Martha Vine, however, is possessed by a wisdom granted only to those still in touch with the larger design of things. Precognitive abilities and attenuation to spirits are simply part of her being.

Cassie's wild connection to the living universe is stronger and less controlled than her mother's. She is compelled to participate in life in ways the detached modern observer would see as impossible and insane. Her earthy sexually, her ability to talk to the dead, the way she can exist in a world where the symbolic is made concrete, and see straight through flesh and into the soul would have, in another era, made her a shaman, prophetess, priestess, goddess, or queen. But in the 20th century -- she's considered more than a bit crazy.

Joyce has always been an outstanding storyteller and he is merely telling the story. He's drawing no conclusions. He's not setting out any explanations. The supernatural elements in The Facts of Life are portrayed with a naturalness, conviction, and subtlety that makes fantasy real. These things just are. You cannot doubt them. They are simply a different perspective than the "scientific" one we filter through.

With prose now graced with even more assurance and power, Joyce has excelled himself and that's saying quite a bit. This one is Booker Prize material and the Brits are barmy if they don't see it. -- (originally appeared in DarkEcho, July 2003)

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Copyright © 2003 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.