How to Make Friends with Demons by Graham Joyce

Next week sees the US release of Some Kind of Fairy Tale, the new novel by one of my favorite authors, Graham Joyce. I just received my copy, so the review will be coming in a bit later. Meanwhile, as a warm-up, here’s a review of one of the author’s recent novels.

Reviewing Graham Joyce for fantasy readers can be tricky, because his novels are often firmly set in our contemporary reality, with only minor fantasy elements. In addition, those fantasy elements are often only visible to the narrator of the novel, creating the impression that they may be figments of the narrator’s imagination. Regardless of the fact that Graham Joyce has won a handful of British Fantasy Awards, you could label his books as magical realism, literary fiction, fantasy, or a mixture of all three. The author himself calls his style of writing “Old Peculiar,” which is a perfectly fitting way to describe the atmosphere of novels such as The Tooth Fairy (one of my favorite novels of all time) and Dark Sister.

How to Make Friends with Demons is another great example of Graham Joyce’s distinctive style. Narrator William Heaney is a more or less regular middle-aged man: boring government job, divorced with two kids, likes seventies music, has a drinking problem. Oh, and he believes that there are 1,567 varieties of demons that can possess anyone at any time. Someone else claims to have identified 4 additional demons, but Heaney thinks he’s just confusing demons with psychological conditions — and then labels excessive footnoting as a demon a few sentences later.

Heaney as a main character is fascinating — literate, self-deprecating, tortured by his past. He sells expertly crafted literary forgeries, only to donate all the proceeds to a struggling homeless shelter. The novel is told in his voice, which leads to lots of gently ironic prose and gorgeous word choices, frequently funny and always incisive:

Despite the fact that I work for a youth organization, I’m not great at talking with teenagers, even my own. In fact, I’m useless at it: there, let it be said. They hit thirteen and they are swallowed up by the Valley of Demons for seven years. I do know that some people don’t emerge until they are thirty-three-and-a-third, but most come out from the undergrowth clutching, by the time they are twenty, a shiny nugget of reasonableness.

(By the way, this novel was published in the UK as Memoirs of a Master Forger and under the pseudonym William Heaney — the name of the main character. Reinforcing the impression that the novel has autobiographical elements: Graham Joyce worked for the same government organization Heaney runs in the novel.)

There is much to love in this novel: its plot is slowly and expertly revealed through a combination of looks at Heaney’s present-day life and flashbacks to his college days. Even minor characters are drawn with such care and precision that I found myself thinking about them long after I finished reading. On one level you can simply read this book as an enjoyable contemporary fantasy, but there are deeper themes running through it that connect in surprising ways, some of which I only realized days after finishing the novel. Another aspect I enjoyed is its intimate and knowledgeable look at the city of London, especially its many pubs and taverns. Even though I have no idea if all (or any) of them are real, they were so beautifully described that I wanted to visit all of them.

It had been a while since I read an entire novel in one day, let alone one sitting, but this one was just impossible to put down. Only about 300 pages long, How to Make Friends with Demons is a beautiful novel that’s simply over too soon. Recommended.

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