Review: Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce

I have a strong but mostly theoretical affection for stories about fairies. I say “mostly theoretical” because I do not often find myself pleased by books that deal with these topics. Of books that bother about The Faerie Realm, the reigning champion is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which manages the necessary but apparently really difficult task of making the world of faerie interesting, creepy, and specific. Other books I have loved that have Faerie Realms in them (like Fire & Hemlock) tend to shunt the faerie realms off to the side and just hint at what’s going on in them, and that is probably for the best. But hope springs eternal, which is why I put a library hold on Some Kind of Fairy Tale approximately ten seconds after reading Alyce’s review of it.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale is about a girl called Tara who has just come back after twenty years away, in which no word was heard from her and her family all assumed that she must be dead. Now she is back, looking very very young for a supposedly thirty-five-year-old woman, and claiming that she went to another world for six months — just six months, she swears, but twenty years have gone by. Bewildered and angry, her family struggles to adjust to her sudden presence in their lives, and to find a way to deal with the story she’s telling about her absence.

I had gripes with the way the book worked itself out (more on that later), but I found it captivating as a whole. I would be on the subway reading it, and suddenly out of nowhere we’d be at my stop, and I’d notice at the last second and have to scrabble all my stuff together in a big hurry in order to make it off the train. What I found so absorbing about the book was that the main thrust of the plot was not any big fuss about the fairy realm and what it all means that fairies might exist, but just the characters trying to settle down into a new normal after experiencing cataclysms. The emotions of everyone involved rang very true — how Tara’s older brother would feel seeing her again after all these years; how her parents, in terror of losing her a second time, would insist that nobody challenge her (apparent) lies; how her ex-boyfriend, who was suspected of having killed her, would struggle with old feelings and come to confront what he had made of his life since her departure. Joyce resisted the temptation to write these sections in broad dramatic strokes, and it just paid off beautifully.

The portrayal of the faerie realm wasn’t my favorite. You see Tara struggling with feelings that the human world is pale and primitive by comparison with the place where she has been for the last six months, but you don’t really see the unpale unprimitive stuff she misses so greatly. Instead there’s a (spoilers) fake death-match, fairies having promiscuous sex all over the place, and this weird lake orgasm thing that I don’t even know what the hell. It’s not particularly connected to the rest of the book, and it doesn’t come off strange and otherworldly. It’s just — there.

I loved that Joyce gave us the possibility that Tara was lying or manufacturing memories — not being sure whom to believe is my fave — but I’d have liked it better (and I’d have liked the very end of the book much better) if it had remained a little ambiguous. If there had been evidence against Tara’s story the way there was significant evidence for. The only thing counting against what she says are the chapters of gobbledygook psychoanalysis by her shrink, and those chapters aren’t insightful enough to be convincing (not sure whether they were meant to be). Having a couple of good reasons not to believe her would have made choosing to believe her a more exciting reading choice.

There’s also this subplot where Tara’s teenage nephew, Jack, accidentally kills his old neighbor’s cat and then spends most of the book trying to figure out how to make it up to her/keep her from finding out. I loved this subplot. It was thematically connected to the plot in interesting ways, and I wish Joyce hadn’t felt the need to connect it explicitly for me. To have a character suddenly be like, “That incident with Jack and the cat got me thinking about the parallels between his situation and yours, Tara” (that’s not a quote, I’m exaggerating), was disappointing. I am a smart lady. I can make connections on my own.

The resolution of the plot was solid and felt inevitable when it came. Mostly it worked great for me, even if it did hit a few of its emotional beats a little too hard to make sure I really really got what was happening. Joyce also added a small denouement involving Tara’s niece Zoe, who plays the guitar — again, didn’t need to be quite as explicit as it was about what was happening, but it was a fitting little coda and a nice way to close the book.

Thumbs up from me, with the caveat that I do have an inclination in favor of fairy stories.

Other reviews include At Home with Books (linked above, yes, but let’s do it again!), In Which Our Hero (um, that is an awesome blog title?), The Speculative Scotsman, Book’d Out, and Books and Needlepoint.

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18 thoughts on “Review: Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce

  1. I think that, like Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories,” I want some element of joy in such stories. Especially when the fairies are tricksy; that’s the most fun.

  2. I am continually mistaking this guy for Graham Greene and then getting knarked that there are no new Greene books, but this review got me closer to picking up this book. Have I tried to thrust ‘The Replacement’ at you yet? It is full of fairies (creepy ones) and psychological weirdness 9as in, how far will people go to avoid acknowledging fairies exist).

  3. Hm, I wondered if maybe his editor is kind of dumb and wanted him to make things more explicit for the Average Reader. (Because sometimes I like to imagine wicked editors messing up manuscripts, even though the clearly are much better at fixing them.)

  4. I haven’t read many fairy stories, but the ones that I have liked are the Iron Fey series. They are just weird enough to be interesting, and the fairies in them are strange and believable. It sounds like I would probably like this one, despite it’s minor problems.

  5. This is on my reading list for that exact reason—ambiguity as to whether or not the fairy world is real or not. I do wish there were more evidence against her, to make it more nuanced.

    Also, the concept of a “weird lake orgasm thing” will haunt my nightmares.

  6. Hi Jenny,

    A very precise review of ‘Some kind of Fairy Tale’, I agree on all accounts, thank you for articulating it so. I did in the majority enjoy it. Have you read any of his other books? Memoirs of a master forger – William Heaney, has more laughs and many descriptions of good red wine being quaffed that by the time you are half way through the desire to go and open a bottle is quite severe. Have you read Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth? A fabulous retelling of the Rapunzel tale interlaced with stories from the life of 17c Charlotte-Rose de Caumont la Force. I love Dianna Wynne Jones, my favourites would be; The Power of Three, Fire and Hemlock and Deep Secrets. Look forward to your future reviews.

    Cheers,

    Spike.

    • Wow, thanks for all the recommendations! My rotten libraries don’t have any of those, although I do intend to try more Graham Joyce pretty soon. Bitter Greens sounds amazing — Rapunzel is one of my favorite fairy tales (because I too have long hair), and I’ve seen very few good retellings of it.

  7. Andrew Lang wrote a novella called ‘The Gold of Fairnilee’ which explored very similar themes. It’s worth checking out and probably available on Gutenberg. ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ owes a clear debt to ‘Kingdoms of Elfin’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which came out some time in the late Seventies. If you like the first, you might like the other.

  8. Graham Joyce has a place in my heart right next door to DWJ. I so, so wish you could have started with one of his best ones! Like DWJ, his books vary wildly both in intention and execution. He’s always walking that genius left-brain-complex-conceptual and right-brain-magical tightrope, so he wobbles a bit sometimes.

  9. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: Some Kind of Fairy Tale « The Literary Omnivore

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