The Limits of Enchantment
Atria (272 p) $22
(February 22, 2005)
The fictional worlds that Graham Joyce creates invariably lay in a territory that is a nexus of paths and borders, a place where the divides touch. His overall theme seems to be the nature of the supernatural -- that which is beyond nature -- in the context of the natural. The core question: If humans perceive something to be natural -- to belong within the ordinary -- then is this something of nature or beyond it? We filter the universe through a "scientific" rational perspective, but is our perspective any more "true" than a perspective that includes "magic"?
Joyce's fantasy is very real; his reality is frequently fantastic. His fictional characters are highly believable, especially when facing the incredible, and they live in environments that, even if they don't exist, mold them. The darkness in his stories once came primarily from explorations of his characters' relationships and their own "darkest hearts. In the course pf the story, the dark became manifest and there were consequences of that manifestation. With just-previous novel, The Facts of Life and now The Limits of Enchantment, the connection becomes subtler. There are those who, despite living in "our" rational world, are still in touch with a world beyond our reason. In both books there is an older women whose wisdom comes from a larger cosmology and a younger woman forced to deal with the world's denial of that cosmology. The darkness in these two books lies in the friction between the two worlds and secrets that must be kept safe to survive. The heart of darkness is humanity's ability to be inhumane, but the light of salvation lies in humanity's ability to cherish its own.
As for The Limits of Enchantment --
It is 1966 and the world teeters on yet another point of transition and even the small Midlands village where seventy-seven-year-old Mammy Cullen and her adopted daughter, Fern, live reflects it. Astronauts circle the Earth, but the cottage in which the women live lacks indoor plumbing. There is still a lord in a manor to deal with, but free-living hippies have moved in nearby. Old-fashioned midwives, like Mammy, can no longer legally ply their trade, but many people still rely on her skills. Abortion is illegal, but the women can rely on Mammy's hedgerow herbal medicine to help them. "Though she never let anyone go without a lecture, she never said no to a desperate girl" -- but each must also divulge the name of the father.
Mammy and Fern live in an in-between world surrounded by secrets that can both protect and destroy. "Mammy was the apostle of the Don't Tell, preaching the gospel of the Say Nothing." Mammy's "resistance to letting it all spill" applies to her own "history" as well. What little Fern knows, she's had to piece together over the years.
Fern, who narrates the tale, is also on an edge and in-between. She's 21, or near to it, but still a child for whom Mammy interprets the universe. She treasures a small transistor radio and the pop tunes of Radio Caroline, but has been taught (and sings) a wealth of folk songs. She's sexually naive, despite an intimate knowledge of the earthier side of Mother Nature and awakening sexually while all too aware of the dangers of involved. Mammy has taught her a great deal, but always keeps back the deepest of the mysteries in which she tells Fern she will someday partake -- mysteries and magic in which Fern only half-believes.
When a local girl, pregnant with an illegitimate child, dies after obtaining Mammy's herbal help, it appears the old woman is responsible. Even Mammy fears her own guilt and feels doom is upon her. A woman who protects herself by knowing so many secrets can also fall victim to those who would prefer no one knew them. On a visit to town, an unknown assailant pushes her into a fall.
The duel troubles bring Fern into contact with two more of "the few" -- Judith, a young schoolteacher near Fern's age, and William, an old man who Fern knows as a beekeeper. As mammy's health worsens, William warns Fern not to let Mammy be taken to hospital, but Fern finds herself with little choice but to allow it.
Until then "Mammy had stood like a door of oak and iron between me and the outside world," says Fern -- and the world that begins pushing in on Fern is an ominous one. Fern has been left unprepared to do battle against it, but she is just as unprepared to further enter into a pact with the powers she only half believes in.
A raft of characters just as convincing as the major players reveal and revel throughout the tale, hindering, helping, menacing, and aiding Fern. We become so entranced that, by the story's end we can't but help wanting to know the rest of her life. (She'd be about 60 now and we are sure she has a life worth telling.)
There's a great deal more to The Limits of Enchantment than the surface story and its obvious "between two worlds" motif. On one level, this is a story of fecundity and fornication with everyone going "at it" except the "thee and me" of Mammy and Fern (and, despite overtones of the 1960s sexual revolution, always have been). On another it is a tale of the downfall of castes and classes. For those who can't remember the sixties (which were actually the seventies), a different story may be interpreted that others may not see at all. ("If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren't really there." -- Paul Kantner) Meanings shift depending on what the reader brings to the story.
There's hilarity and wry observations of humanity, but Joyce never plays judge. At the outset, he has Fern tell us, "If I could tell you this is a single setting, then you might believe all of it, even the strangest part... If I could unwind this story in a single spool, or peel it like an apple...in one unbroken coil...then you might bite in without objection...." That's exactly how he tells the tale and it is easy to believe no matter how strange it grows.
Every time a new Graham Joyce novel comes out, it turns out to be even better than the one before. This is a frightening thing as "the one before" was itself wonderful. Has the man exchanged his soul for this magic? If he has, I suspect he's sold it to the Goddess (whoever or whatever She may be) because along with the acquisition of pure literary skills, Joyce has also become one of the strongest "female" voices in fiction today. This is all the more extraordinary because Joyce gives manly blokes their due, too, (most specifically in Smoking Poppy), and, as anyone who has quaffed a drink or twelve with the author will testify, he's a right manly bloke himself. (from Cemetery Dance #53)
• • •
Interviews with Graham Joyce on DarkEcho:
»» Graham Joyce: A Sense of Dark Forces Mustering (HorrorOnline 2000)
»» Graham Joyce: Smoking Poppy in PDF (The Spook 03.02)
Other Reviews of Graham Joyce Novels on DarkEcho:
»» Dreamside by Graham Joyce
»» The Facts of Life* by Graham Joyce
»» Indigo by Graham Joyce
»» Partial Eclipse by Graham Joyce
»» Smoking Poppy by Graham Joyce*
»» The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce (review by Hank Wagner)