Is Graham Joyce a fabulist who dabbles in reality or a realist drawn to hallucinatory logic? Trick answer: both. He’s won four British Fantasy Awards, and the characters that spring from his pen are an odd lot: the boy locked in a destructive relationship with his personal gremlin in The Tooth Fairy (1996); college students sabotaged by their own nightmares in Dreamside (2000); and the father in Smoking Poppy (2002), who visits his teenage daughter in Thailand only to be haunted by jungle spirits. As Joyce’s fiction grows ever more ambitious, though, he has integrated fantastical elements with increasing subtlety. With The Facts of Life, he seems ready to escape the musty bookstore corner assigned to fantasy and sci-fi and breathe the open air of mainstream literary fiction. The book comes bearing blurbs from Isabel Allende and Jonathan Lethem, names that define the boundaries perfectly. Joyce has conjured up a historical novel that always keeps magic and mayhem in its peripheral vision.
The title suggests a heartwarming family saga full of earthy characters and hearty wisdom. Not one to disappoint, Joyce offers Martha Vine, so much the archetypal matriarch that she’s almost a cliché—but so likable that we don’t mind. Martha’s seven daughters orbit around her, even as their lives take diverging paths after WW II: Una marries a farmer; Beatie attends a trade-union-sponsored college and becomes a card-carrying intellectual; Aida weds a man who embalms corpses as a hobby; twins Ina and Evelyn spend their spinsterhood investigating the occult; and Olive quietly raises children while her husband, a veteran, launches an affair with the wife of his dead war buddy.
Cassie, the youngest daughter, vibrates to a different frequency than the other girls. The family’s word for her is “fey”—meaning wayward, spacey, “away with the fairies.” That’s an apt phrase, as supernatural powers run in the family. Martha is frequently disturbed by visiting spirits, a curse she inadvertently passed down to Cassie, who’s perpetually addled by voices in her head. Cassie is one of the strangest fictional heroines I’ve come across in a while. She’s a male writer’s wet dream—gorgeous and sexual—yet totally entranced by her own fantasies. Although she has the power to make a man lust after her with a single glance (whether by telepathic suggestion or sheer good looks is never clear), she rarely takes advantage of this perk. Cassie is one of those extraordinary creatures who “seemed to live in a guilt- and anxiety-free world where the past and the future were mere details hovering outside the iridescent bubble of the moment.” Prone to disappearing for long stretches of time, Cassie returned from two of these mysterious absences pregnant. The first babe was given away, but Martha decides the family will keep the second—a little boy they name Frank—and take turns rearing him.
After Frank is born, Cassie lavishes him with love but proves unable to care for him, absentmindedly leaving the baby alone in the house or burning him with a cigarette. Her reckless behavior and eccentricity might’ve earned her a bad reputation in their provincial hometown of Coventry, England, if it hadn’t been camouflaged by the chaos of war: “For a long time the Vines could appear normal, even strong. But now that peace was reasserting its position in the skies and the shadows of war were in retreat, the strange angle and the crooked gate would all look conspicuous again.” Coventry was practically razed during the Blitz, though, and after the war everyone’s buzzing with conflicting ideas of what should come next. As their neighbors argue about how to rebuild their cracked city, the Vines focus on how to raise Frank.
More narrative device than little boy, Frank enables Joyce to peek inside the sisters’ lives as they take turns caring for him. Each woman besieges him with different values and sensibilities, so that Frank’s childhood becomes a gallery of cultural extremes: On Una’s farm he’s allowed to roam free in the countryside (he frequently visits an oracular object he calls the “Man-Behind-The-Glass,” who speaks to him and demands sacrifices). Next he’s bounced to the oppressive home of the twins, who are infatuated with séances. Disappointed that they haven’t inherited any special abilities, the sisters exploit Frank’s mystical aura. He is, they believe, “a beacon attracting new and positive spirits, as if the boy were a row of lights on the angelic landing strip.”
Determined to rescue her nephew from “the forces of unscience gathering around him like dark birds,” Beatie yanks him into a different kind of nuthouse. Joyce launches an amusing satire of a mid-century commune: Her comrades include a Maoist, a lesbian artist, a radical anti-vivisectionist, plus the fabulously aristocratic head of household, lech-philosopher Peregrine Feek. The only thing these free spirits have in common is perpetual horniness and the determination not to do any housework. Beatie convinces them that what the place needs is a shared mission—education of the young—and makes Frank the first student of their half-assed experiment. Joyce looks on affectionately, explaining that “Beatie was motivated by nothing other than good intentions and notions of progress and self-improvement. It grieved her to see Frank passed about the family as if it all didn’t matter.” The most politicized sister, Beatie is opposed to leaving anything to fate, as fate has a habit of screwing over working-class folk like the Vines. “She knew that everything lay in a state of potential, and that potential could only become actual if you took a firm grip of the events of life and forced them along a desirable route.” But Frank will not be forced: Having absorbed all life has to offer him, this enigmatic kid will unfurl at his own gentle pace.
The tug-of-war between science and magic, reason and unreason, is a running theme in most of Joyce’s books, but it rarely overpowers The Facts of Life. The author crams an enormous amount of life and intelligence into this novel without ever losing momentum. Each of the Vine women reverberates on the page, going about her business, be it mundane or ethereal. Joyce takes a solid, conventional page-turner bustling with well-realized characters and douses it with a stream of figments and doubts. Is the girls’ dad—who resembles Elizabeth Bennett’s taciturn father in Pride and Prejudice—dead or just very quiet? How did Cassie get pregnant, and why was she flitting through the streets of Coventry the night of the big bombing? And what do Frank’s psychic friends have in store for him? Joyce’s style is delectably ambiguous to the very end. In Joyce-land, you can never be sure who’s a kook and who’s a prophet.