“No more of your fairy stories
‘Cause I got my other worries”
– The Ramones
British author Graham Joyce, despite receiving glowing accolades from the likes of Jonathan Lethem and Stephen King, is something of a best kept secret in North America. One reason why he isn’t more popular than he rightfully should be is because he tends to be a rather English author, unafraid to call a tire a tyre or delve into other sorts of British-isms in telling his tale. Another is that much of his 20-odd years of published work tends to be a blending of homespun reality with the light fantastic: which is to say his stories aren’t quite something you can relegate to the Fantasy section of your bookstore, but still tend to take liberties with the slippery slope of reality.
Some Kind of Fairy Tale, “a tale of enchantment”, is one of those books that straddles the line between the real and the fantastic. I found it in the general fiction section of my local big-box bookstore, which goes to show just how hard to classify or peg down Joyce’s writing really is. It’s as though book store owners don’t bother to try, or consider him enough of a realist to warrant putting him into general fiction.
In any event, Some Kind of Fairy Tale is the story of Tara Martin, who is just about 16 years old when she mysteriously disappears from the woods nearby her home in rural England. Her boyfriend, Richie, a struggling teenaged musician, is thought to have committed murder and is nearly incarcerated for a lengthy period of time for the alleged act, which leads Martin’s family – including Tara’s brother and Richie’s best friend/bandmate, Peter – to stop talking to him outright and make him persona non grata.
However, Tara suddenly turns up at her parents’ doorstep one Christmas afternoon more than 20 years later and the twist in all this is that A) she has barely aged at all, B) she claims that she was only away for a period of about six months, and C) that she was carried away by, well, what you or I might call “fairies”. The tale takes multiple vantage-points, switching between third-person omnipresent narrative, first-person accounts and even the notes of a male psychiatrist named Vivian Underwood (the unlikely name being something which gets played for laughs) who sees Tara at the behest of her brother, as nobody can come to believe her rather far-fetched tales of being spirited along.
Now, if you come to Some Kind of Fairy Tale expecting sweeping fantasy and an in-depth look at British folk tales, you’re bound to be a bit disappointed. While the fantastical elements feel new and compelling, they’re rather limited in scope and only make up a component of the story. What this novel actually is, is more of a chamber piece about the relationships between people: how characters come and go from our lives for a variety of reasons, and, in a rather Joyce-ian trademark, how we judge others by the nature of their honesty versus what we perceive to be lies.
While the novel’s true outcome won’t be very much in question to those who have read some of Joyce’s previous works, Joyce is a skilled and gifted writer who writes as though he has schizophrenia. That is to say he inherently seems to believe that there are other worlds beyond our own, and does everything in his power to make his readers believe it – though it must be said that he successfully offers the counterweight in the form of bewilderment from those who are more scientifically bent and ground themselves in the factual and measurable. In a way, Joyce’s novels are not so much works of the fantastic or even the authorship of a fabulist; rather, they’re more in line with examining the very nature of the stories that we tell each other, and tries to find some universal truth or truths that bind them and make them believable. Or, in the eyes of some, not.
Some Kind of Fairy Tale will be particularly fascinating to those who have read Joyce’s celebrated 1996 novel The Tooth Fairy, as this book is the feminine inverse of that earlier work as it features a young, female protagonist instead of a boy. However, while The Tooth Fairy was a multi-year tale that served as a Bildungsroman, and one that looked into whether or not the supernatural had any sway over the travails of simply growing up and becoming a man, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, though being a bit long in that it runs more than 300 pages, is more compact in scope and deals with the fallout of what happens when someone who has been away for a very long time returns to a world that is no longer really their own.
On that level, Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a fascinating, warm-hearted tale of redemption and the love one has for their own family and friends – even if you might think they’re a bit crazy from the tales they sometimes tell. In an epigraph that introduces one of the chapters, Joyce quotes poet W. H. Auden: “A fairy tale… demands of the reader total surrender; so long as he is in its world, there must be for him no other.” That makes Some Kind of Fairy Tale truly a story of the fantastic: you get mired in the lives of the characters and wish that you really know these people, warts and all.Yet, it feels as real as the world outside your doorstep.
Some Kind of Fairy Tale, though a ripping good read, is something of a slightly lesser work in Joyce’s canon. For one, there are slight lags in the plot that feel like padding to stretch the reader over to the next big point or reveal that the author wants to make. There is also a rather clichéd and unnecessary sub-plot involving Peter’s 13-year-old Jack, who accidentally shoots an elderly neighbour’s cat with a pellet-gun he received for Christmas, an act he goes about telling lies about and trying to cover up for. Though it fits into the author’s bigger narrative of what is true and what’s a whopper, you feel as though you’d been through that kind of story before.
As well, the so-called fairy world keeps trying to intrude on the main narrative, though the payoff of this on-again/off-again aspect of the tale doesn’t really pay off until the very end of the novel. Still, Some Kind of Fairy Tale has a definite narrative thrust and succeeds as a “stranger in a strange land” kind of story. There’s real magic and honest mystery to be had here, and readers will likely be charmed and swept away by the originality and majesty of Joyce’s wordsmithing. It’s both a contemporary and classic narrative, peppered with Joyce’s stylistic flourishes, and the combination makes for a largely stellar and enchanting story.
All in all, Some Kind of Fairy Tale is very much a novel worth spending some time with, and one that should be a suitable primer to whet one’s appetite for Joyce’s earlier novels. (May I recommend either The Tooth Fairy or Requiem, which is arguably one of the best stories of Catholic guilt and mysticism I’ve read?) It really pains me to see that Joyce isn’t a more celebrated author on American shores, despite being a winner of the World Fantasy Award, and if you’ve never heard of Joyce, you’re truly missing out on one of the most gifted storytellers to grace the planet.
It may not be his best work, but Some Kind of Fairy Tale is the sort of thing you won’t find by the Brothers Grimm: a present-based and very adult tale of a world of the fantastic and magical that might exist well beyond our own. It’s a story you won’t soon forget.