Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Book Review | Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

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For twenty years after Tara Martin disappeared from her small English town, her parents and her brother, Peter, have lived in denial of the grim fact that she was gone for good. And then suddenly, on Christmas Day, the doorbell rings at her parents' home and there, disheveled and slightly peculiar looking, Tara stands. It's a miracle, but alarm bells are ringing for Peter. Tara's story just does not add up. And, incredibly, she barely looks a day older than when she vanished.

Award-winning author Graham Joyce is a master of exploring new realms of understanding that exist between dreams and reality, between the known and unknown. Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a unique journey every bit as magical as its title implies, and as real and unsentimental as the world around us.


Twenty years ago, after a falling out with her besotted boyfriend, teenager Tara Martin went into the Outwoods to take solace in their special spot, and gather her thoughts. She could hardly have picked a more beguiling backdrop for a vanishing act if she'd tried.
"The Outwoods was one of the last remaining pockets of ancient forest from which Charnwood took its name. It nestled at the spot where the three counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire almost  touched, and seemed neither to belong to nor take its character from any of them. It was an eerie place, swinging between sunlight and damp, flaring light and shadow; a venue of twisted trees, its volcanic slopes of ash and granite ruptured by mysterious outcropping crags of the very oldest rocks in Britain." (p.12)
When it emerges that Tara isn't coming back, suspicion falls upon her sweetheart, but Richie maintains his innocence to the hilt, despite some strictly circumstantial evidence to the contrary. Desperate to close the case, however, the police are dogged in their determination that Richie did it, pursuing him to the point that his close friendship with the whole of the Martin family - especially his best pal Peter - becomes too painful to sustain.

Twenty years later, the world has moved on — for everyone except Richie, whose loss has ruled if not outright ruined his life. So when Tara turns up on her folks' doorstep, aged nary a day and bearing a tall tale about fairies instead of an actual reason for her sudden disappearance, it's a shock to the system to say the least. Nobody knows what to think... not even her shrink.
"Clearly the narrative has been constructed to make sense of some overwhelming experience — but at the moment we have no clues as to what the experience might have been. Until we are able to locate any organic foundation for the amnesia and confabulation we will proceed with an psychological investigation underpinned by an understanding of the needs of the confabulator." (p.160)
Presented as journal entries composed for potential publication at a later date, Dr. Underwood's occasional perspective serves several purposes simultaneously in Some Kind of Fairy Tale. In the first, his sessions with "TM" function as a neat and natural way to tease out this two-pronged parable, because rather than frontloading the fiction with two worlds’ worth of exposition, the author best known for Memoirs of a Master Forger threads Tara's metaphor-laden vacation to fairyland through the entirety of a more practical framing narrative, concerned in the main with the real world repercussions of her return. In addition to generating meaningful momentum, this approach instigates a sense of tension that the novel is never again absent, as one can only wonder what happens next, and what, in the interim, has been withheld.

Not to mention why. Nor, crucially, by whom. Because from an early stage - in point of fact, from the first page - we're warned, though not actually informed, that "everything depends on who is telling the story. It always does," (p.1) and in Some Kind of Fairy Tale, there are no easy answers.

Which is not to say the narrative is unsatisfying. On the contrary, Joyce's habit of refusing obvious conclusions is one of his latest's greatest successes. By stopping just short of solving all the novel’s possible problems, the author invites us to read between the lines... to unpick the almighty puzzle of Tara's absence. In that respect Some Kind of Fairy Tale comes together wonderfully, presuming you're prepared to do a little of the lifting yourself.

Ultimately, uncertainty seems to be Some Kind of Fairy Tale's stock in trade, so it's fitting that both the form and the content of Underwood's aforementioned interludes work to compound this conception. As a man of science, of fact rather than fantasy, his quest is to systematically discredit Tara's increasingly unlikely account of the twenty years she's short. The effect of his scepticism, then, is to balance out her belief, thus the reader can't take anything on trust, from anyone — least of all the novel's narrator, whomsoever he - or she - may be.

It's a terrific touch, and perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the entire, after the fact, but Graham Joyce's hypnotic new novel has much more going for it than the slow burn of its seductive structure. On the sentence level, say, Some Kind of Fairy Tale seems simple - indeed, it makes for a few evenings’ easy reading - yet the prose boasts an ominous undercurrent: a suggestion, made ever so softly, that there’s more to the tale (and its telling) than we’re aware.
"You have no idea [...] None of you. There is a veil to this world, thin as smoke, and it draws back occasionally and when it does we can see incredible things. Incredible things." (p.190)
This short novel is a pleasure in terms of character, too. Richie is a classic case of arrested development, meanwhile Peter’s mature, and mostly level-headed. How these old friends relate to one another as after two decades as accidental enemies is immediately engaging, and uncannily convincing; as are Tara’s tragicomic struggles to grips with the modern world she’s returned to. Last, and perhaps least, as diverting as his perspective is, Peter’s moody but well-meaning son Jack has surprisingly little impact on the narrative, though his chapters offer a certain sideways insight into the novel’s most perplexing events.

In sum, Some Kind of Fairy Tale is fantastically formed, complete with a portentous premise, a marvellous cast of characters, and a narrative as smart and self-reflexive as it is at first old-fashioned. It’s a little slow in the going, I suppose, and its magic - its mystery - is essentially ineffable, but hold open your imagination for a moment and you'll fall under its spell as well. Enigmatic and intellectual, yet readily accessible and massively satisfying, Joyce’s latest is a joy.


This review was originally published, in a slightly altered form, on Tor.com


Some Kind of Fairy Tale
by Graham Joyce

UK Publication: June 2012, Gollancz
US Publication: July 2012, Doubleday

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com
IndieBound / The Book Depository

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