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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).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Facts Of Life
SF Site Review: Smoking Poppy
SF Site Review: The Tooth Fairy
SF Site Review: The Tooth Fairy

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Gabe Mesa

In The Facts Of Life, Graham Joyce returns from the exotic locales where he's set novels like Smoking Poppy and Requiem to the more familiar confines of the Midlands region of England where he was born and raised, and, in the process, gives us a deceptively gentle masterpiece of magical realism that may be his best book since the excellent The Tooth Fairy.

The Facts Of Life follows the lives of Martha Vine and her seven daughters in the British town of Coventry (where Joyce was born) in the years during and immediately following the Second World War. Telling the seven daughters and their husbands apart is somewhat difficult at first, but Joyce quickly manages to delineate their individual characters and circumstances. There's Aida and her husband Gordon, the town embalmer... the spinster twins Evelyn and Ida, devotees of spiritualism... Olive, who runs a grocery store with her unfaithful husband William... Beatie, the Oxford-educated radical who lives in a commune with her lover Bernie... Una, who owns a farm with her husband Tom... and the youngest sister, Cassie, the free spirit whose casual liaisons result in her bringing a small boy, Frank, into the world. Because he has no father and only a partly competent mother, Martha Vine's matriarchal decree is that Frank (like a sister before him) be handed over to other townspeople for an informal adoption. When Cassie rebels only seconds before the projected hand-over, however, the matriarch relents and Frank stays to be raised in turn by the different Vines sisters and their own families.

As Frank is passed on from sister to sister over the years, Joyce takes the opportunity to give us a finely etched (and often very funny) portrait of the many different facets of working class life in post-war Britain. After spending his first few years with Martha and Cassie, Martha decides the boy needs the influence of a man and sends him to live with Una and William. These idyllic years on the farm are cut short when Una starts her own family and Frank and his mother are dispatched to stay for a mercifully brief period with Evelyn and Ida, the straitlaced spinster spiritualist twins. From here, Frank and Cassie move to Oxford where they are welcomed into a local commune of left-wing academics by Cassie's sister Beatie and her boyfriend Bernie, and from there to Aida and Gordon. The section of the book set in Oxford is one of the novel's strongest and highlights a side of Joyce not previously in evidence appreciated -- that of social satirist. Here Joyce lampoons the realities of commune life, from the sexual hijinks (despite being apolitical, Cassie's equal opportunity approach to satisfying her libido makes her hugely popular with both male and female residents) to the petty factionalism rooted in disagreements over obscure theoretical minutiae to the incongruity between the impassioned calls to political action and the unwillingness of most residents to carry out even the most basic house chores.

Readers here may be wondering now whether the novel in fact contains any fantastical elements or whether Joyce has now decided to move full bore into social realism or social satire. As in Joyce's two most recent novels (Smoking Poppy and Indigo), the fantastical element is clearly present if somewhat muted, and it is this, combined with the emphasis on the familial, that make The Facts Of Life something of a British heir to the magical realism of Latin American writers like Allende and Garcia Marquez. The Vine family is, as Martha Vine puts it, an "odd lot", the family of "the strange angle and the crooked gate". Martha Vine receives some very odd visitors, Cassie appears to be able to converse with the dead and there is concern that Frank may be "special" and about to carry their powers, for good or bad, into the third generation. Certainly while living on Una and Tom's farm Frank's uncanny abilities are in evidence as he makes the acquaintance of a very peculiar gentleman -- the Man-Behind-the-Glass, of which the less revealed the better.

To the rich stew of social realism, social satire and the fantastic that makes The Facts Of Life so compelling, we must also add the element of historical realism. The town of Coventry was devastated by German bombardment during the Second World War. In a middle chapter of the novel, Joyce moves briefly into the past and follows Cassie Vine as she walks the length of breadth of Coventry and converses with and gives succor to both the living and the dead during the horrible night of November 14, 1940, when Coventry suffered the worst bombing. This chapter (which was published as a separate story in The 3rd Alternative under the title "The Coventry Boy") may be the single most affecting piece of writing Graham Joyce has written to date. At the climax of the bombing Cassie looks out over her hometown from the top of the ruins of Coventry Cathedral:

From below she could hear nothing, and up here only the wind, and that muted, like a sad murmuring at her ears, like the whispering of an inconsolable, defeated angel. The city was a broken bowl, spilling fire. It was like looking into the heart of Satan. Rivers of flame, grinding sparks, belching black puffs of smoke. Miles of red glowing earth at all compass points. She ran to the other side. A filthy strand of smoke, twisting up like a giant smoke. Silvery tongues of flame. Crimson jaws working away. Sudden flares. Puddles of combustion. A writhing, as if the flames were a maggoty infestation on the underbelly of the city. For a moment it seemed to Cassie that the tower too dropped away beneath her; she felt her stomach flip, but she was borne up by hot currents of air and she went flying over the inferno, over a city of three hundred thousand burning souls. Then she was back again, her feet planted firmly on the stone parapet of the medieval tower, with the wind in her ears.
The Facts Of Life shows us a writer at the peak of his powers. It is a deeply mature work, deft and self-assured in its combination of history, social observation, humor and fantasy and ranking among the best of recent English language novels in the magical realist vein.

Copyright © 2003 Gabe Mesa

Gabe Mesa is the assistant editor at s1ngularity. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter and 4,000 books.

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