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THE PRIME OF HIS LIFE
Graham Joyce's Smoking Poppy

By Paula Guran

SMOKING POPPY
Graham Joyce
UK: Orion (Gollancz)/288 pages/ 12.99
Release Date: 18 October 2001 (blue cover>
US: Pocketbooks/ 288 pages/ $23.00 (red cover)
Release Date: January 2002

Note to those who vote for the British Fantasy Award: I realize Graham Joyce has won your Best Novel award four times -- for INDIGO (2000), DARK SISTER (1992), REQUIEM (1994) and THE TOOTH FAIRY (1996) -- but you'd best just engrave another trophy to Mr. Joyce. If he deserved the four previous wins (he did), then there is no denying him a fifth for his latest (and so-far greatest novel), SMOKING POPPY.

Note to anyone else involve in similar literary "contests" including non-genre awards: See above and please note this book is being published in calendar 2001 in the UK which qualifies it in many cases for this year's awards.

Note to any film producer with a lick of sense (admittedly a fairly empty category): This one is hot. It's got it all. Roles any actor would die for. Jungles. Opium. A scantily clad babe in distress. A charismatic drug warlord. Look, don't worry about the fact it's intelligent, has depth, and is beautifully written. We'll dump all that stuff. Maybe add a few special effects. Are there volcanoes in...where the hell is this set...Thighland? No, nothing like Brokedown Palace. Think Traffic combined with Apocalypse Now (minus the war) and rescue/adventure! Whatever. I'm telling you, move on this one.

Note to the perceptive reader: Don't even take the time to read this review. Just buy the bloody book and read it. It's one of the finest novels you'll ever grasp in your grimy paws.

Book cover Danny Innes is the Brit equivalent of what Americans call a "regular joe." An electrician by trade, he's alienated from his adult children, recently separated from his wife, and a bit befuddled as to how it all came about. All he's ever done is his best to love and provide for them, but there he is, kicked in the teeth and alone.

Then he's told his daughter, Charlie (Charlotte), has been arrested for drug trafficking in Thailand and is imprisoned in Chang Mai. Danny has to go. No matter how estranged they've become -- Charlie had gone off to university at Oxford and come back multiply pierced and with "the politics of an international terrorist" and he hasn't heard from her in two years -- it's his little girl and it is up to him to do what he can. Danny, like most men, is a "fixer." When confronted with a problem -- whether it is frayed wiring or a daughter facing life imprisonment or execution -- he wants to fix it.

Book cover Danny, although not a recipient of higher education, is a voracious reader who uses books "the way some people do alcohol, to obliterate the noise of the outside world." (Although of late, our Dan's been knocking back quite a bit of whiskey and not a few ales.) He's the sort of autodidact who has accumulated vast amounts of the sort of knowledge that makes one wizard at trivia. Like most self-taught intellects, Danny's brain acquires information in what "educated" types would consider an odd fashion. He picks up books by Keats, Coleridge, Baudelaire, De Quincey, and Rimbaud from the library (along with a more technical guide to drugs) because someone's told him they were notable dope-fiends and he wants to find out more about the stuff. Of course, unhampered by the prejudices of "education," Danny also can make associations and gain insights his allegedly-learned brethren can not.

Danny goes off to Thailand accompanied, somewhat to his distress, by his "best mate" Mick and religious zealot of a son, Phil. Mick Williams is a blustering bull of a man, but possessed of a lively intelligence and undauntable determination to help his friend--despite the fact that Danny has never considered Mick a friend. Phil is as repressed as Mick is unrestrained. Three years older than his sister and a laboratory technician, Phil has distanced himself from his father with a parsimonious nature and complete dedication to Christian fundamentalism.

The incongruous trio hit Thailand and are confronted with a world more alien (and perhaps more survivable) than the bottom of the Marianas Trench. They are also dismayed to discover the young woman imprisoned in Chiang Mai is not Charlie. Despite the utter incompetence of the foppish local British Consul, they manage to question the imprisoned girl and her information gives them a possible location for Charlie -- a small village near the Myanmar border, a lawless area that requires a trek through near-impassable mountainous jungle terrain to reach.

The journey through the jungle to the poppy fields and the borderland village where they find Charlie is one of many layers of discovery. Any reviewer is compelled to discern parallels between SMOKING POPPY and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The similarities are there: the relentless dread that overhangs all like the vines and trees of the jungle, the filtering of reality through the protagonist's point of view, the indictment of Western imperialism, the allegorical journey and eventual rebirth. But this is no Conrad pastiche. Joyce does leave us with some mysteries, but there is none of the vagary of Conrad's oppressive but never-delineated horrors. Nor is this a solo personal expedition like the one Marlow takes. It's a family story about relationships and truth, love and the ability to learn and heal; the discovery of a spiritual world -- both a personal inner espial and one with literal unseen demons. And when Danny and his crew arrive at their "Inner Station"-equivalent, it is not a scene of savage horror: it is the start of the true journey.

SMOKING POPPY is also an extraordinarily entertaining book. There is the element of exotic travelogue: the author has knowledgeably, lovingly, and accurately represented a culture few Westerners know anything of. Not that this is a glossy vacation-in-fascinating locale telling -- the sweat, the insects, the smells are all part of his rendering.

Most of all, the people Joyce has created -- and they are amazing living, breathing creations you can scarcely consider fictional, people you will know forever -- are hilariously human. In their foibles and flaws, their blindness and even their revelations -- we see ourselves. There is the kind of recognition and reaction we all must have to survive: we must laugh even as we weep. Danny is closed, emotionally cut-off, and blind to everyone, everything around him. To be allowed to share in his enlightenment is like being granted your own redemption.

There's more. Much more. There's never been any question that Graham Joyce is a gifted writer, but with SMOKING POPPY he attains a new level. He is in the prime of his writing-life and may well progress beyond it -- an awesome consideration. -- Paula Guran, originally appeared in Cemetery Dance #37

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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.