What if a girl really vanished for 20 years — and then reappeared, looking no older than she did when she left? What if she said she'd been taken to a fantastical land, akin to fairyland, where time passed much more slowly? How would people react in real life?
That's the great premise of Graham Joyce's new novel Some Kind of Fairy Tale, which is one of the most impressive fantasy books we've read in ages. Minor spoilers ahead...
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We're in the middle of a pretty huge fairy-tale renaissance in pop culture lately — but a book that brings this kind of thoughtful, character-based approach to the fairy-tale archetypes is rare indeed. Graham Joyce has obviously steeped himself in fairy-tale lore, and his attention to detail (and to the significance of those details) is pretty astonishing. But what really makes Some Kind of Fairy Tale stand head and shoulders above most other fantasy novels I've read lately is the strong focus on the characters. Joyce's slow, careful narrative style draws you in to a story that's as much a family drama as it is a magical adventure.
In Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Tara Martin returns after having vanished 20 years earlier. During that time, everybody decided she was dead — and in fact, the police were convinced that Tara's boyfriend Richie had murdered her. The return of Tara, alive and well, brings out a lot of conflicting emotions in her family and Richie — including some anger at the notion that all this time they thought she was dead, and she was just gallivanting around.
We, the readers, are never in much doubt that Tara has been taken by fairies — because Joyce is a fantasy author and we are alert to the genre cues that he throws in. There's never really a plausible alternative that explains why Tara has miraculously come back looking the same age as when she left, twenty years earlier. But it's to Joyce's credit that he doesn't really try to play the "ambiguity" card, or make the reader think that Tara is likely to be making things up.
Instead, he takes a much more subtle tack — showing us how a bunch of different characters view what's happened to Tara. In a sense, we get to see Tara's disappearance and reappearance through the prism of several different viewpoints. There's Tara's brother Peter, who hates her for her disappearing act, but slowly comes to become something more like her surrogate father. There are Tara's parents, who are initially so overjoyed to have her back, they don't want to ask questions — and then they start realizing how hard it actually is to have her back. And there's Richie, her ex-boyfriend, who has basically been pining for her, for the past twenty years.
And then, perhaps most interestingly, there are the notes by the psychologist that Peter sends Tara to. Vivian Underwood attempts to deconstruct Tara's story, so that first we hear the events as Tara relates them, and then we see Vivian's exegesis, in which he tries to pull apart the meaning of them. It's somewhere between psychoanalysis and literary criticism — a lot of Vivian's attempts to pull apart the symbolism of Tara's story of laying in a field of bluebells and meeting a man on a white horse, who takes her to a strange land, doubles as an analysis of the hidden meaning of fairytales in itself. And yet, Vivian's ultimate agenda is to disprove Tara's account — something which takes him away from its true meaning, as we understand it.
This is one of those rare novels that captures just how much of reality is something that we all construct out of each other's consensus narratives — so that whatever everybody believes happened to Tara is, in a sense, what happened to her. Reality is much more changeable than any of us likes to believe. That's nowhere more evident than in the flashbacks to Tara's boyfriend Richie being accused of killing her — until he almost starts to believe that he really did it.
In addition to a fantastic attention to the little details, Joyce's writing also sweeps you along. Like here's Tara, describing her state of mind as she lays in a field of bluebells, just before she gets taken away to the place that's sort of fairyland:
The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down on to the earth floor, and I didn't know if the sky was earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky. But I couldn't hold on, and I know I went soaring.
As the novel goes on, you realize that it's not just about the question of what happened to Tara — and what different people believe happened to her — but also about the people who were left behind, and how her disappearance has affected them. Not being able to move on with their lives has left all of the characters damaged in different ways, and her return opens up a lot of wounds that never properly healed.
There's also a subplot in the book, which appears to be almost totally unrelated at first, in which Peter's son Jack gets a little too enthusiastic with his air gun. In the midst of all of the older characters dealing with their complicated feelings about events of 20 years ago, the sequences with Jack are a welcome breath of rowdiness — Jack is 13 years old, and constantly experiencing unwanted and socially awkward erections, as well as a failure to communicate with almost everyone. In a book about characters whose youth has been stolen, in different ways, Jack and the other Martin children are sort of emblematic of youth.
The last time a fairy-tale book got under my skin like this, it was Lisa Goldstein's The Uncertain Places, which took sort of the opposite approach — Goldstein throws in a million frenetic twists as her characters go deeper and deeper into the fairy world, and there are tricks and counter-tricks and almost too many reversals to count. In this book, though, Joyce takes a steady, masterful approach that explores one simple story from every angle, holding it up to the light until we see the hidden images revealed by each separate facet. Joyce has written a brilliant book that will make you think about the meaning of fairytales in a new way.