Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce
Reviewed by Ben Godby
08 August 2012
Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a story about a family traumatized by the disappearance of their fifteen-year-old daughter Tara, only to be traumatized again twenty years later when she shows up on Christmas Day. Strangely, Tara looks just like she did before she went away. According to Tara, that's because, from her perspective, only six months have passed. After all, she didn't just go anywhere: she went to live with the fairies.
Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a very readable book. One of my primary criteria when I think about whether or not I enjoyed a book is what I call "devourability." How fast did I read the book? How badly did I want to read it when I wasn't? In short, did the book demand that I devour it?
Some Kind of Fairy Tale certainly did. It is fast-paced, well written, and plumbs the depths of its characters in a way that is satisfying and illuminating and rarely ever bogs down. This may simply be because Graham Joyce writes according to the writer's adage that the reader shouldn't notice you're there: when you're reading his prose, you're already beyond the words and locked in the story. In short, Some Kind of Fairy Tale is highly readable.
However, devourability is not the only criterion when judging a book. After all, the very whiff of pizza demands I consume it. But I'm a vegetarian who tries to eat vegan, and even if I break those codes and get over the moral anguish, I'll have a massive tummy ache in the bargain. Similarly, the most devourable books are sometimes the ones that deliver the most heartburn. Let me put it this way: if you don't read Some Kind of Fairy Tale, you really don't have anything to regret.
There is a very obvious problem with this book, but the obvious problem is not the interesting one. Let's start with the obvious one anyway. The premise of Some Kind of Fairy Tale, and the font of all its movement and wisdom, is British folklore. Obviously, different people will have different levels of familiarity with the legends and bestiaries that make up this corpus, but I think even neophytes will feel as if they intimately understand the workings of fairyland in Joyce's depiction. I'm suggesting this is true whether his depiction actually corresponds with real traditions or just fits stereotypes, because I honestly have very little experience with traditional British mythology, and yet I felt like everything slid perfectly into place. For example, in this book:
- The connection between our world and fairyland exists along celestial "hinges": dawn, midday, dusk, midnight, solstice, and equinox.
- Fairies have lots and lots of free and wild sex.
- "They don't like being called fairies" (p. 368).
There are also all sorts of other non-surprises, like the time distortion (Tara goes away for twenty "real" years but six "fairy" years), intensely friendly animals (lizards, bees, horses . . . even plants!), and esoteric scientific knowledge (like hand-drawn maps that work uncannily like Google Earth). I can't be sure whether all this obviousness is Joyce's point—if he doesn't want to simply keep hands away from tradition in the interest of writing more about how his characters react to a world in which all those traditions are true. In the afterword, he writes, "This story has numerous antecedents, but the slippery nature of its truth is testified by the number of times it can mutate" (p. 391). I suppose what he is suggesting is that the underlying material—the magical basis for this kind of story—gives a writer a veritably endless font of creativity.
Perhaps it is. Some Kind of Fairy Tale reminds me of Jo Walton's Among Others (2011), the common thread being that both books are about worlds in which British folklore is true, and that they both advance the idea that magic is real, that it exists behind a thin veil and all we need do is penetrate it once or push it aside and a whole other realm comes rushing at us. This is a terribly alluring idea: perhaps the entire genre of fantasy is founded on the fact that, sometimes, modern humans just want a little more superstition in their lives. But I feel like, once you've become a mature reader, a book that whispers—nay, shouts—to you, "Fairies are real!" can only make you (well, okay, me) reply, in absolute deadpan: "Oh, fairies are real? How clever."
Of course, Joyce does have his own twist to this, er, Kind of Fairy Tale. The book is, effectively, three hundred odd pages worth of twists and turns that simultaneously try to seduce us with the magic behind the veil thesis and to convince us, conversely, that Tara is lying: that she never went to fairyland at all but was the victim of some terrible trauma and so invented a magical history to cover up her pain. Joyce provides numerous chances for us to explain Tara's episode as a confabulation, by having Tara visit a psychiatrist and making whole chapters out of the psychiatrist's notes. We are given every way possible out of believing Tara. The psychiatrist writes enormous passages that break down, in mythological terms, every encounter that Tara has during her passage through fairyland (for example, equating the sexually rampant fairy "Ekko" with the word "echo," the character Ekko being the metaphorical echo of Tara's own repressed sexuality during her time in fairyland). In so doing, Joyce preempts any attempt the reader might make to use psychological metaphors to doubt Tara's magical experience. He encourages us to be doubters—and in so doing, he demands that we be believers.
I can't help but believe that Joyce's employment of a psychiatrist and whole chapters of psychoanalysis has exactly this point: that we must believe Tara's account. There really is no way, within the text, to doubt Tara sanely: there are far too many other events in the story that indicate that fairyland is enormously real. Physical tests prove that Tara really is only fifteen; a fairy follows her back to the real world and assaults her boyfriends; another woman has also been to fairyland and confirms Tara's story. There is no way a reader can believe that, in the world Joyce is describing, fairyland is anything but real. And yet he persists, to the very end, in trying to convince us that we do not know what is being said or what might really be. Indeed, he uses a few key passages at the beginning and end of the book to suggest that, at its heart, not just the psychoanalysts, but even the narrator is unreliable:
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. (p. 1)
This attempt to suggest to the readers that the narrator is unreliable is ridiculous, since we never learn who the narrator really is; and since the narrator is omniscient (by way of his or her imagination) anyway, we don't have any data as readers to sort through the mystery and come to any conclusion other than the only one that is possible by the very bare facts of the text: Tara really went to fairyland. An unreliable narrator is a nice technique when the reader can suss out the narrator's biases; but this narrator has no actual existence, no actual biases. The narrator is Joyce, and Joyce wants to be unreliable because he wants to make his text obscure. It's not clever, but it is posing as cleverness; it is not esoteric, but it wants to sound esoteric. I'm not sure if this happened by accident, or if Joyce realized his story was banal and wanted to poke the reader a little to spice it on up. Either way, it was groan-inducing.
Hopefully by now you haven't forgotten that I also wrote that there is an interesting problem with this book. We've only just now come through to the other side of all the obvious problems; and though they are weighty, they never actually struck me as powerfully as the following realization.
The defect of this book is really that Joyce is a fantastic writer who wrote the wrong book. Joyce's characters are expert, his prose flawless. All the magical waffle in this book is not very stimulating, but by contrast, by far the most moving part of this whole book was a subplot about Jack, the son of Tara's brother. Jack accidentally kills his neighbor's cat, and struggles to find a way to keep that knowledge from her even as he feels guilty and wants to help replace the cat. It was an incredibly moving story, and it had nothing to do with magic. It was deep and meaningful and it made my heart ache; it made me think of all the times we've done something we quickly realized was wrong or hurtful or terrible, and how it can be nearly impossible to face up to our own responsibility for that pain. I was totally enraptured . . . by the subplot.
In the end, of course, this subplot is really just a means to an end, a complex route to a revelation that confirms Tara's story. Joyce designs it to meld into the rest of the story (which explains why none of the other secondary characters had their own tales). But it never melded completely for me, because it so far surpassed Tara's story.
I think this book would have been infinitely more powerful if it really were possible that Tara had suffered some kind of trauma and so made up her entire fantastical experience. If it had been possible, then I as a reader would have rooted for fairyland. I'm no different from any other fantasy reader, after all: I want the magic to be real. And if Joyce had sown doubt more effectively, and more thoroughly raised the possibility that Tara was suffering psychological trauma, I would've lusted after that magical place where everything is beautiful and otherworldly, and I would've trusted Tara and wanted to believe her with all my heart. Instead, the reality of magic is rather unsubtly hammered into our heads.
On top of this, Tara is not really an interesting character. Maybe it's because, ultimately, she's wholly defined by her experience in fairyland; she has no hobbies or interests or even any real status as an actor in the story, because she's constantly wrapped up in telling a story (and a story founded on Joyce's thesis, to boot). She ends up as a sort of mouthpiece. And since what comes out of her mouth is constantly confirmed by the narrator (who is also, paradoxically, ridiculously, cast as unreliable), I ended up hating Tara and everything fairyland stood for.
I'd like to come back to the point that this isn't a bad book. In a lot of ways, it's really good. It's the kind of thing that makes your tummy fill with mind-honey. And Joyce is a brilliant writer. Literally, I could not put this book down. On the other hand, when I shut the covers on the last page and stepped back to think about what I'd just experienced, I could find nothing brilliant, nothing deep, and nothing revolutionary. I felt like a lot of the book had contradicted itself, and it failed, in the end, to balance the emotional debt that it lays on the reader at the beginning: a girl has gone missing, and in the end, despite everything that happens, she never really returns.
I think that anyone who reads this book will probably devour it as readily as did I, and they'll probably enjoy that experience. The question is whether you find yourself digesting the mind-honey, or throwing it back up on the page.