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Smoking Poppy
Graham Joyce
Victor Gollancz, 227 pages

Smoking Poppy
Graham Joyce
Graham Joyce was born in 1954 in Coventry, England. He attended Bishop Lonsdale College (B.Ed. with honours), graduating in 1977, and the University of Leicester for an M.A. in 1980. He worked for the National Association of Youth Clubs in Leicester as a youth officer until 1988. The same year, he married Suzanne Johnson, a lawyer. Graham Joyce's other novels include Dark Sister (1992), House of Lost Dreams (1993) and Requiem (1995).

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SF Site Review: The Tooth Fairy
SF Site Review: The Tooth Fairy

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A review by William Thompson

This deeply expressed and heartfelt novel peers into the hidden recesses of the human heart, and the way it hides and disguises its love and emotions in an often futile attempt to guard and protect itself from the rebuffs and pain it anticipates, and, in foreknowing, already suffers.  Smoking Poppy is an examination of the emotional soul, if you will, as spectre, as one among a host of spirits that inhabit the sleeping world of our awareness, waking only as consciousness is revealed to be nothing but an alternate dreaming, and a fiction of our own invention.  We often go to great lengths to sustain and shape these self-constructed apparitions, incorporating them into our own identities, creating a mirror of experience and reality that will preserve some impregnable concept of ourselves at a moment of our own selection (or at least that we can accept and find reassuring), like the looking glass of folklore, showing only what one desires to see. But this is in fact only a reflection of our own deep-seated fears and desires meant to disguise our exposure. It is a desperate attempt to resist or elude the indifferent happenstance of chance and change, in a defense of vulnerability that seems more appropriate to childhood, but here, through some odd inversion, actually becoming the inheritance of adulthood, left to haunt the novel's characters, waiting always for the right and exact moment to step out from its hiding place and shout boo!

Dan Innes is a man who has lost his children and in the process lost that part of himself that he held most dear: fatherhood.  As happens for many parents, this has come about as his two children have come of age, growing out of their earlier needs for him as a father, becoming their own adults and in the process leaving him adrift and feeling no longer needed but alienated from the individuals his children have become.  He feels this most keenly for his daughter, Charlie, who, in obtaining the college education he lacks, becomes as if a stranger to the little girl he once adored.  Unable to let go of the child, and no longer able to see her in the adult she has become, just as Charlie seems no longer to see him as the man who once nurtured and cared for her, father and daughter have become estranged until, at the point where the novel opens, a couple years have passed since they have last spoken.  But Dan Innes is about to be given a second chance to reclaim his daughter, as well as his role as a father, with the ominous news that Charlie has been arrested in Thailand for smuggling opium.   

Knowing little of Thailand or the use or trade of the drug, Dan sets out for a remote town in the northern interior, Chiang Mai, where his daughter is confined under a possible sentence of death, hoping in some way either to free or at least assist her.  He is accompanied by two unlikely companions, neither of whom he would have chosen: his born-again son, Phil, whose religious beliefs repel him, and a bar friend, Mick, whose personality and behaviour Dan finds annoying and vulgar.  Wishing for neither, both insist upon coming, and this mismatched trio soon find themselves in the midst of a mystery that leads them deep into the jungles near the borderlands of Laos and Myanmar, a region devoted to cultivation of the poppy and ruled by lawless and ruthless gangs of smugglers.  Neither speaking the language, nor knowing what awaits them, they are soon plunged into an ancient, primitive culture and primordial landscape in which the spirit world is an accepted and almost tangible presence.

This is a story of loss and redemption, playing upon the metaphoric potential of a journey into a landscape and almost timeless culture in a way different and yet similar to other authors, such as Conrad, who have been fascinated by what may lie hidden within the depths of the world's primeval jungles, both natural and human. With direct and self-effaced prose, Graham Joyce has written a tale about a father's sojourn into his own heart that ends in discoveries unlooked for, in large part because the reader travels the narrative through the eyes and experiences of the main character, Dan, knowing and experiencing no more than he does before the revelations that are to come at the story's conclusion.  And, like the spirits that hover just beyond the periphery of the narrator's sight, and whose presence is glimpsed in rare moments that build as the story nears its final denouement, this novel is haunted by metaphor and symbolism that should not be overlooked for their unremarked, momentary or seemingly commonplace occurrence. 

While Graham Joyce has established his reputation in fantasy (winner four times of the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel), this work reads more as mainstream fiction than a standard for the former genre. Any elements of fantasy are reduced to a tertiary and subservient role, and when they emerge, do so briefly and in a manner that shapes itself to the realism present in the action and the setting. In many ways, the fantastical elements are easily accepted or overlooked as nothing more than a trick of the light filtering through palm leaves, or the manifestation of native beliefs or the imaginings of drug-induced sleep.  Their appearance and association are fully integrated, and thus at times almost forgotten in terms of their identity, within the realism with which the author has created his remote jungle setting. 

For all its merits, in certain respects Smoking Poppy seems more an excursion than a full-fledged voyage, and I suspect some will consider this but a minor note compared to the author's former work.  Leavened with humour as well as social criticism, some of the latter falls a trifle flat, not because it misses the mark, but because the target has been hit before, and in ways little different.  The descriptions of poppy cultivation and the tribal cultures of Thailand seem also similarly familiar, but may more reflect my own background and interests than that of the average reader.  Finally, for all of the humanity with which this work is invested, I nonetheless found myself retaining a certain emotional distance from the characters. For all their trials and the dawning recognition of their flawed nobility and grace, in some way the development and revelations of the characters never quite measured up to the author's use of theme and metaphor.  Nevertheless, this is a well-written novel that should please many of the author's fans, and a welcome and intellectually rewarding respite from the usual ways in which fantasy and the fantastic are incorporated and used within fiction.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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