In a note at the end of his haunting, brilliant new novel Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce explains his chapter epigraphs – from sources as diverse as Shakespeare, Marina Warner, John Clute, G.K. Chesterton, Bruno Bettelheim, Albert Einstein, Joseph Campbell, Ursula K. Le Guin, Angela Carter, Yeats, and Auden – as an homage to ‘‘those writers – living and dead – whose works champions the fusion of Realism and the Fantastic.’’ It’s a rich and daunting tradition, but a good case could be made that Joyce himself is currently Britain’s most accomplished heir to it. Returning to the luminous Midlands settings of earlier novels like The Limits of Enchantment, Some Kind of Fairytale will likely invite comparisons to everyone from Carter to Robert Holdstock (there’s a distinctly enchanted wood), but you have to reach a bit further to appreciate the subtlety and complexity of Joyce at the top of his form, which he clearly is here. Gene Wolfe comes to mind, for example, with the various ways in which Joyce manipulates multiple points of view and narrator reliability – he (or his unnamed narrator) tells us on the very first page that ‘‘everything depends on who is telling the story’’ and that ‘‘there are considerable parts I’ve had to imagine’’ of what follows. In short, Joyce is a master at writing stories that know they are stories, and before we’re done we’ll have seen chapters narrated from three or four different first-person viewpoints, other chapters not in first person but limited to a character’s viewpoint, other third person chapters in which characters tell their tales to other characters, and a few chapters (from the point of view of an eccentric but not foolish psychologist) that seem to wryly comment on the various ways that readers might approach the central tale, from those seeking literary sources to those who simply want to keep herding the story back into the box of psychological realism.
That central story turns out to be a familiar and almost classic tale. Mary and Dell Martin, a comfortable middle-aged couple – though with unspecified tensions that are always the signal in Joyce of a tale yet to be told – have settled down to Christmas dinner when someone knocks at the door. To their astonishment, it’s their daughter Tara, who had disappeared as a teenager in the adjoining Charnwood Forest some 20 years earlier, and who was long presumed dead. Though bedraggled and adamant about wearing sunglasses even indoors, she seems hardly to have aged at all. Soon Tara’s brother Peter – now 40 and married with teenage children – is summoned, and quickly grows skeptical of Tara’s inconsistent tale of having wandered the world for two decades. When Tara reluctantly reveals her bizarre explanation of where she actually was and why she hasn’t aged, it sets up the novel’s central mystery, and links the novel to a long tradition of folklore and fantasy, dating back to legends of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer and to literary fantasies at least as far back as Ludwig Tieck’s ‘‘The Elves’’.
For the most part these traditional tales have focused on the adventures of the protagonist in a magical place, often with a time dilation aspect (the girl who spends a night with the elves in Tieck’s tale returns the next morning to find that seven years have passed, for example). But while Tara’s tale may involve magic, it has a decidedly unromantic edge, and one that may even come to threaten characters back home in Leicestershire. Chief among these is Richie, Tara’s former boyfriend, a talented but desultory musician who had been widely suspected of her murder. As his tale unfolds, so do those of Peter, his wife Genevieve, their children Josie and Jack (whose problem involving an elderly neighbor lady’s cat provides a clever thematic echo of the changeling theme), the neighbor lady herself, and the aforementioned psychologist (wonderfully named Vivian Underwood), hired to discover the psychological roots of Tara’s fantastic tale. Here is where Joyce really excels in revealing the interpenetration of the realistic and the fantastic: he offers as much attention and insight to the tales of those left behind as to the tale of the fantastical adventure itself, revealing a hidden magic in those mundane lives that, in the end, enables us to care as much about a missing cat as about the wonders of Elfland. Fantasy, he seems to insist in echoing that long tradition, is real, but, for the most part, it’s elsewhere, and the rest of us have to muddle through with what magic we can make of our own lives and relationships. Few writers today can match Joyce in evoking the beauty of that delicate balance, in conveying the fantasy of ordinary life or the ordinariness of the fantastic. The Limits of Enchantment, though apparently not widely read, remains among my favorites of Joyce’s novels, and Some Kind of Fairytale works the same sort of magic and in many ways is even more accomplished. This time, people, pay attention.