Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad
Over a dozen novels into the game and Graham Joyce tells me over Skype that he is now relaxed about not fitting into a specific genre. In the US, his books are sold as mainstream fiction; in the UK, the British Fantasy Society keeps plying him with awards, so he is mostly categorised as a speculative fiction or fantasy writer although there is no way anyone would consider him traditional or high fantasy at all. You’d be hard pressed to find dragons or hobbits in his books, though you’ll often come across dark, deeply mysterious figures who may have haunted your childhood — hidden alter egos, hungry tooth fairies or demons sprung from desires. Joyce’s latest book is the clever, subtle and intricate Some Kind of Fairy Tale, a book about enchantment, family and storytelling.
Christmas day in a small town “in the deepest heart of England,” and an older couple are shocked by the sudden return of their daughter Tara, who vanished from the woods nearby 20 years ago. Tara’s appearance has not changed in the years she has been gone, other than looking “pretty grubby” and smelling like “rain, maybe. Leaf. Mushroom. May blossom. The wind.” There is something fey about her — like a changeling child she seems to have adapted to another life, another world, now eating only fruit and nuts and being unable to adjust her eyes to bright light.
She initially lies about where she has been for the last two decades, but eventually gives in after her brother Peter proves that her stories of “travelling” for 20 years are untrue. Tara finally admits to having — quite literally — run away with the fairies after a strange experience while walking alone among the bluebells in the Outwoods, where she had watched the “air fizz with tiny prickles of fire, knowing something was about to happen”. On a day, when “the scent from the bluebells ... had ripped [her] open like a drug,” Tara agrees to go with a handsome man on the whitest horse she has ever seen, and finds herself in a strange lakeside ‘commune’ from which she is unable to return for six months. Of course, it is only upon her return that Tara sees that time has passed much faster in the ‘real’ world.
Tara is the first to acknowledge just how unbelievable her story seems. She even agrees to see a psychiatrist who believes her to be a “spontaneous confabulator,” a person who “maintains a consistent though often bizarre outpouring maintained with fierce conviction”. None of her family believe her story, with the psychiatrist trying to explain her youthful appearance by suggesting she has “switched off the aging hormones” and that perhaps hers is a case of trauma-related amnesia. While she seems to know everything about Tara’s old life, dental tests prove that she really is still a teenager and everyone begins to question further how she could possibly be the same person who left their lives so long ago without a trace.
Some Kind of Fairy Tale is told in chapters narrated by different characters and Joyce’s skill as a writer is evident in the ease with which he switches perspectives, each voice ringing clear and perfectly crafted. This is not just a ‘what happened to Tara’ story — there are subplots about her ex-boyfriend Richie initially suspected for her disappearance, and his estrangement from Tara’s family, particularly her brother Peter. There is even a perfect little window into the life and guilt of Peter’s teenage son whose escapades with their neighbour’s cat eventually lead up to a meeting between Tara and the only person who does believe her. Of course, the boy’s attempt at replacing a dead cat with a doppelganger asks the reader to question once again whether Tara really is who she says she is. Joyce may well weave a tangled web, but its skeins are strong and unique.
Joyce alternates narrative voices between Tara, her brother, her ex-boyfriend, her psychiatrist and an unnamed narrator who begins the story with the disclaimer “Of course, everything depends on who is telling the story. It always does. I have a story and though there are considerable parts I’ve had to imagine, the way I saw it was as follows” and ends the book with a similar statement directed past the fourth wall. Who is this narrator? Just how reliable is the person who has already admitted they have had to “imagine” considerable parts of the story they are telling? Just how much faith are you willing to put in the storyteller’s version of events? Joyce reminds his readers though, that “if you don’t believe in miracles, you’re left only with the beautiful and unsolvable mystery”.
This is a book about storytelling, about how stories are told and how they shape us. Adding to the many facets through which to experience Some Kind of Fairy Tale are the epigraphs Joyce places at the start of each chapter — quotes from fairy tale scholars like Marina Warner, mythologist Joseph Campbell and excerpts from the transcription of a 19th century trial of a man murdering his wife because he believed her to be a fairy changeling. Most importantly, perhaps, he also quotes Albert Einstein on how vital imagination is to intelligence: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales”. And that, perhaps, is the one ultimate perspective that can not be refuted.
Some Kind of Fairy Tale
By Graham Joyce