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12-14-12: Graham Joyce Spells Out 'The Facts of Life'

Power of the Matriarchy

Editor's Note: The original review slated for today has been moved out at least a week. I'm adding to my Graham Joyce collection, since this sweet, powerful novel offers solace to those who might at this moment feel they live in a war-torn landscape, whether or not that is the case.

The best fiction is at its most basic just about life; human life in a family, in a city, in a country, in a time of peace, or of war. Too often, however, books about life trend towards the soap operatic, and by detailing the events of life they somehow manage to exclude life itself. Books about the supernatural, which should be ultimately about life, tend to be more about violence, death and lots of stuff most people will never see in their lives; thus they too exclude life from between their covers. Worse, by shoving the reader's face in some contrived bit of supernatural experience, they diminish the effectiveness of the literary device — the supernatural — they are trying to leverage.

In 'The Facts of Life', Graham Joyce offers readers a rough and ready portrait of life itself, gritty, funny, sometimes scary, sometimes weird, and sometimes just plain inexplicable. This is a book stuffed to the rafters with characters who grab the reader as easily as they grab one another. It's filled with the life of the city of Coventry during and after the blitz, told as it follows the life of a baby born out of the blitz.

The Vine family is a huge powerful matriarchy. Mother Martha leads seven sisters; Aida, Beatie, Cassie, Evelyn, Ina, Olive and Una, and their spouses and offspring through the war and beyond. Martha is powerful and not just because she's stubborn. She's prone to some supernatural intrusions, and some of her daughters are as well, particularly the “fey” Cassie. As the novel begins, Cassie's son Frank has been born without a father. She waits on the steps of the Church to give him away to a good home, but a vision intercedes and she decides to keep him. Once this has been confirmed, Martha comes up with a plan to raise Frank by having Franks (and sometimes Cassie) passed between the other daughters' homes. Cassie goes through ‘blue periods' when she disappears, sometimes for days at a time, compromising her ability to be a mother. Martha's plan is a great way for readers to become intimately familiar with the fascinating Vine family.

Joyce covers an incredible amount of time and characters in a very short book that reads quickly and easily and yet seems to contain more material than books three times as long that take six times as long to read. It's alternately laugh-out-loud funny, touching, loving, hilarious, frightening, gripping and yet wonderfully light. Joyce's prose is lovely, a sort of rough-cut here-and-now slice of life that gets to heart of the matter without dithering about. Beyond the sisters, there are twice as many more characters, each of who comes fully to life in the kind of confident writing that bowls readers over without their knowledge. Here's a book that will bring the reader a varied emotional rush that is incomparably powerful.

Joyce does shade in a few touches of the supernatural, but they're not the point of the book and they're not the highlight of the book. They will however thrill readers of supernatural literature with their clearly imagined veracity and their originality. Joyce points readers towards a set piece near the center of the novel set during an intense bombing raid that practically decimates Coventry. However, the power of his book is such that his showpiece simply slots in alongside all the other events that are so well portrayed. A family dinner in Joyce's novel is apt to cleave as deeply as repeated bombing by the Germans.

‘The Facts of Life' is another step towards the mainstream by this talented writer, and it's easily his best novel yet. Rather than compromising as he writes stories more accessible to more readers, Joyce has managed to simply find the resonant power in the simplest gestures. This is the kind of book that one expects to find nominated for the Booker Prize, but it's probably more enjoyable than the average prizewinning novel. From an experiment in communal living to a spiritualist church, Joyce revels in the wild variety that grew in post-war Britain. Though the life during wartime that Joyce depicts is anything but sunny, the light that he infuses into the souls of his characters is nothing less than the light of life.

12-11-12: Graham Joyce Finds 'The Limits of Enchantment'

The Complications of Beauty

Editor's Note: Graham Joyce is one of my favorite writers; his work is intense, odd, imaginative and more human than one might think possible to pack into mere words. I've spoken with him twice; once in 2004, an interview I've just reformatted, updated and uploaded for your listening pleasure; and in late 2009. Joyce is the sort of author who deserves to be on the bestseller list, and I can unreservedly recommend anything he's written. Here's a review of one of my favorite novels of his, a difficult call. They're all favorites, and deservedly so. I will try to get the rest of the book reviews I have into the new repository, and better still get a chance to talk with him again via ISDN or, by travelling to the UK. His newest novel is 'Some Kind of Fairy Tale.'

"Trust the tale and not the teller," Fern Cullen tells us on the first page of Graham Joyce's new novel, 'The Limits of Enchantment'. "...listen hard. Not to your thoughts, which will mislead you, nor to your heart, which will lie..." Graham Joyce knows a few things about your heart, it seems. And he's unwilling to lie. Fern Cullen, shedding the last of her sheltered teenage years amidst the English midlands in 1966, tells the tale in Joyce's latest novel. Her voice is rings true, rings close, rings clear, in gorgeous bell-tones that carry the reader effortlessly, buoy us on a breeze, in a whisper. She's learned a lot from her adopted mother, from her Mammy. The passing of wisdom is commonplace in her life. The passing of wisdom is quite uncommon in ours, and few are those who can do so with the eloquence, the grace and the power of Graham Joyce. There are no limits of enchantment within the experience of reading this novel.

The limits of Fern Cullen's life are quite clearly described in her own voice, a voice that's consistently a joy to read. This is the kind of book that readers will want to read aloud, from the dramatic opening monologue to the closing coda. Joyce's prose is a delight to encounter, page after page. Every paragraph yields a new treasure, a new turn of phrase to be relished. Mammy is the last of the traditional hedgerow midwives in her neck of the woods. She's the woman to whom the other women in the village turn when they find themselves in the family way and need help. She knows the herbs, the rubs, the mixes and recipes that will set things right. But before she sets things right, before she supplies the solution, she makes a simple demand. She's to know the cause of the problem. She's to know the name of the father.

Set in the years before abortion was made safe and legal, 'The Facts of Life' offers a compelling look at the balance of power between men and women, between tradition and science. Joyce's portrait of hedgerow medicine is fascinating and detailed, as is his portrait of rural England in 1966, as change sweeps across the land and indeed around the world. In this microcosm of Fern's world, we see the world at large. When a group of hippies inherit land near Mammy's house, it signals the beginning of the end of Mammy's traditions, and their rebirth in Fern.

What makes the novel so compulsively readable, so utterly pleasurable goes beyond Joyce's easy-seeming prose. He presents for his readers life in full, in its complete state, literally from beginning to end and beyond. The variety of life, from tragedy to farce is brought to life by his ability to weave humor and hint at horror within a single scene, often within a single paragraph. Readers will find themselves guffawing in one moment then holding back a tear in the next. Joyce renders each scene in Fern's voice with a breathtaking transparency. The tone of the novel shifts naturally, entertainingly, as Fern and Mammy realize the limits of their lives.

Joyce provides a compelling and intricate plot to structure the novel. Within the flawlessly researched environment, Joyce has managed to strip out any single word that might get in the way of creating the story for the reader. The progression of the midlands from an almost prehistoric level of civilization, notch by notch, into the twentieth century, provides an intense drama. Because Joyce so successfully manages to invest his readers in his characters, we care dreadfully for what will happen to them.

The fascinating prehistoric elements of the novel provide the underpinnings for ecstatic flights of visionary writing. Few writers have a mastery of the surreal as engaging as Joyce. He knows precisely how far to take the reader into those moments when the supernatural, when the numinous, intrudes into our world and shifts our perceptions beyond the details of our petty lives. He also has the ability to make these visions applicable not only to the characters in the novel but to the readers as well. By scratching about in the universal unconsciousness, he manages to get universal access. We all have a moment now and again when we feel the tug from beneath and beyond. Joyce will bring you back to your moments as you read of Fern's.

And reading is the point. Joyce writes a novel that offers an almost handcrafted feel. Readers who encounter 'The Limits of Enchantment' will find that every detail is attended to; every word has earned its place in the novel. It's why he's able to pack so much life into such a short space. Joyce writes the kind of novel that readers can and should take very slowly, though the temptation will be to read it in a single sitting. Don't, or if you do, realize that you're likely to return to the first page and start again, to enjoy every detail, to experience every laugh, every moment of mystery once again. Joyce is one of our great novelists, one of the treasures of our time. You need not accept my word for it. Pick up the book. "Trust the tale and not the teller."

12-10-12: Susannah Cahalan's 'Brain on Fire'

Losing Your Own Story

Madness is in the mind of the beholder. We're at the cusp of a sea-change in how our minds are perceived. Up until this moment, this day, this hour, we've had two very different means of understanding our own brains. On one hand, there is the crude physical organ, which Mad magazine once referred to as resembling "a bloody sponge." On the other hand, we understand the brain, the mind, to be the psychological image of our own identity. Body and spirit required different forms of treatment. What ailed one certainly could affect the other, but treatment could be pretty neatly divided into talk therapy and brain surgery.

In 2009, New York Post reporter Susannah Cahalan found herself straddling that line, then crossing back and forth. Soon enough, she found herself disconnected from her own story, her own self. Fortunately, she was one the right side of the dividing line in our understanding of the mind and the brain, and was able to return to her storyline and her right mind. The story of Cahalan's loss of her own story is easily the most terrorizing book you're going to read this year. 'Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness' manages the very difficult trick of putting us in the mind of a woman who is losing her mind, her very soul. Cahalan's book is a journey to the center of the human inferno, from which she returned only by virtue of the love of her family and friends and her excellent medical treatment, which might not have been possible a mere two years earlier.

Cahalan has a fantastic story to tell, so it is easy to miss out on just how well she tells it. In early 2009, she noticed what she thought was a bedbug bite, in the midst of a bedbug scare. She herself grew scared and then obsessed. In hindsight, she's able to understand and convey that it was the obsession, not the "bite" which was the symptom of what was to come. As her behavior grew increasingly erratic, she ended up in the NYU Langome Medical Center, in the direst of conditions. Her life, as well as her mind, was at risk. A team of doctors, and one in particular, made the difference, bringing her back from the lowest circles of a mental hell.

Cahalan tells her story in crisp, intense prose and short, sharp chapters. The narrative is just about 250 pages, and you're likely to read it in one or two terrified sittings with your hands clutching the book. She does a superb job of conveying just what it is like to lose control of your own thoughts and emotions. She's brave and raw in what she tells us, but doesn't go overboard with details for the sake of shock. Instead, every word is there for a reason, as she takes the reader on journey where we can see the evidence of her illness, while she, the narrator telling the story, cannot. This is powerful, crafty writing that gets under your skin and induces a reading experience version of the panic the narrator is describing.

The structure is equally graceful and powerful. Because of her illness, Cahalan does not have any memories of substantial portions of the events she narrates. She had to go back to her medical records, videos taken while she was in the hospital and the memories of those she knew to re-create the events and characters in her life. In this kind of story, there's a real danger of prematurely conferring sainthood on one's family and friends, which undermines the veracity of the entire enterprise. Cahalan manages to avoid doing so while clearly conveying the import of the love and support that were critical in her recovery.

This is also true when she writes about her doctors. 'Brain on Fire' is a quintessentially human story, and leaves doctor-gods at the door, showing us professionals who find themselves flummoxed by a combination of creepy, invasive, shifting symptoms and a disease that is only barely understood. Cahalan keeps the science smart and comprehensible. This is not a book about a new disease; it's a book about being on the razor-edge of how we understand ourselves.

Ultimately, it is that definition of humans as the storytelling species that is the source of much of this story's power. Ten years ago, Cahalan might have ended up in a madhouse, with a diagnosis of psychiatric mental illness and a short life expectancy. Fortunately for her, and for us as readers and humans, she was on the right of the blade of progress. This is an intense book that deserves to be experienced in the same manner Cahalan experienced her illness, with as little preparation as possible. 'Brain on Fire' is a reminder that our own brains are fragile, our lives are finite, and our minds are capable, in spite of all this, of great knowledge, great love and great stories.

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