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The Facts of Life
Graham Joyce
Gollancz, 263 pages

The Facts of Life
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: Smoking Poppy
SF Site Review: The Tooth Fairy
SF Site Review: The Tooth Fairy

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A review by Martin Lewis

Martha Vine is the matriarch of the Vine family, mother of seven daughters. Cassie is the youngest of these, "the result of a night of careless and rough passion after the celebrations over the election of the first ever Labour government of 1924." The story opens with Cassie waiting to give away her infant son to a stranger. Just as she is on the point of doing so, she has a vision of golden light streaming from the three spires of Coventry. She takes this as a sign and returns home with him, where he is christened Frank after his dead, American father.

Cassie had been forced to give away Frank (as she had already given away a daughter) because the rest of the family did not believe she was fit to be a mother. This is confirmed for the reader in incidents where she accidentally drops him on his head and stubs a cigarette out on his leg when she falls asleep. More than just careless, she is prone to depression and flights of fancy, to use the family's phrase she is 'fey'. Martha resolves the problem by decreeing that all the sisters will take a turn in raising Frank, with Cassie staying with them as she sees fit. In this way, the lives of the sisters Vine are mapped through the growing eyes of Frank.

This might sound a lot like a family saga of the type certain readers consume like candy and, in a way, it is (there is even a double wedding), albeit a particularly well written one. However, there is, of course, a fantastic element and it weaves itself through the whole story, imparting an added resonance. It was Graham Joyce's stated intention to write about "the fantastic and the domestic, side by side" and that is exactly what The Facts of Life is. It is as if a magical realist matriarchy has parachuted into the prosaic setting of the mid-Twentieth Century Midlands (though Joyce himself may well recoil from that description).

Martha, Cassie and Frank are all afflicted by premonitions, ghosts and visitations. Afflicted is not quite the right word though, as these events are treated as matter of factly as everything else in the novel; sometimes they are embraced, sometimes they are shunned but always without any great ceremony. One of the most interesting achievements of the book is the rendering of the mundane extraordinary and the fantastic common place.

The central scene of the novel, the razing of Coventry, combines these two elements perfectly. Cassie has a premonition of the impending firestorm and goes out into the night to witness the event. Here, there are many acutely observed realistic scenes, such as an exhausted Cassie sharing a cigarette with a ruined tobacconist. At the same time, she loses her virginity to a ghost and flies with him through the German bomber-filled sky. Neither set of events are more or less important than the other.

The Facts of Life is very much about the facts of life; birth, sex and death feature prominently. Often these themes are manifested in decidedly unpleasant events but again these are facts of life, nothing more, nothing less. In general, the novel is warm in tone and optimistic about humanity. This is reflected in the wonderful prose that is permeated by hope and a gentle humour. The dialogue is excellent, despite the handicap of utilising a regional dialect that is, frankly, not the prettiest. The construction is highly impressive, there is a deft neatness to the drawing together of the threads of the story for a conclusion that is both satisfying and fitting.

If there is any flaw in the novel, it is that Martha occasionally suffers from Granny Weatherwax syndrome, an infuriating knowingness where maternal assumes the same negative connotations as paternal. Like Weatherwax herself, however, she is saved from this by humility, in the face of her own humanity. Really there is nothing to complain about in this beautifully crafted novel. Joyce has already won the British Fantasy Society award for best novel four times and on the strength of The Facts Of Life he may well receive it again for this work.

Copyright © 2003 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis reviews for The Telegraph And Argus, The Alien Online and Matrix, the newsletter of the British Science Fiction Association. He lives in North London.

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