It’s been twenty years since Tara Martin disappeared without a trace. The police conducted fruitless searches in the dense forests where she was last seen. Her boyfriend was a suspect, which drove a rift between him and Tara’s grieving family. Years went by, Tara’s parents got older, her brother started a family of his own. Life eventually moved on.
Then, two decades later on Christmas morning, Tara suddenly shows up at her parents’ door, looking not a year older than she did when she vanished from the face of the Earth… and claiming she was abducted by a fairy.
Graham Joyce is responsible for some of the most memorable fantasy novels I’ve ever read: The Tooth Fairy, Requiem, How to Make Friends with Demons, and Dark Sister are my personal favorites—roughly in that order, although this tends to change depending on which one I’ve re-read last. His most recent novel, The Silent Land, was a bit of a letdown for me, but knowing this author, I knew this had to be just a blip. I had high hopes for Some Kind of Fairy Tale, and for the most part, I’m not disappointed.
Graham Joyce’s novels are more akin to what’s often called magical realism than traditional fantasy: they’re usually set in our contemporary reality with only minor added fantasy elements. In addition, those fantasy elements are often only apparent to one character, casting doubt on whether they’re real or just figments of someone’s imagination. The gentle tension created by this doubt, combined with Joyce’s typically gorgeous prose and deep characterization, make reading his novels a unique pleasure. The closest comparison is probably Jonathan Carroll, but Joyce is the better writer of the two.
Some Kind of Fairy Tale is, in a way, a very recognizable Graham Joyce story. Tara Martin claims to have spent the past six months in an alternate realm with some decidedly un-fairy-like fairies, while in our reality two decades went by. Her family, understandably, finds it difficult to accept this story, as does the psychiatrist she starts seeing. Most of the novel explores the emotional and psychological tension created by this situation and the way the various characters evolved during Tara’s absence.
The fairies Tara encounters somewhat resemble the titular character from Joyce’s earlier novel The Tooth Fairy: there’s a dark, primal energy to them that’s completely at odds with what you’d expect from the word fairy. Graham Joyce also gradually draws subtle links to older tales about and experiences with “the fair folk”, setting up several gradually converging threads that fill in some (but not all) of the novel’s mysteries.
By contrast, Tara’s sessions with her psychiatrist offer a clinical look of the possible causes of what he diagnoses as a “confabulation”— a highly meaningful term in the context of the story, having “fable” as its root. Which is more valid: the doctor’s reasoned analysis or Tara’s bizarre story? Which is easier to accept? Much like in Dan Wells’ recent novel The Hollow City (review), the main character is torn between reality as she perceived it and the blatant disbelief of the people around her:
“That guy is trying to persuade me that I’ve had a giant hallucination, and I’m giving him a chance. Really, I am. Perhaps that’s what happened. The thing is, when everyone is trying to persuade you that a thing you know to be true isn’t actually true, you start to believe them: not because it’s true but because it’s easier. It’s just the easy way out.”
Some Kind of Fairy Tale mixes the hallucinatory atmosphere of Tara’s past experiences with the comfortable, home-like setting of the present. Kids play on the carpet. People offer visitors a cup of tea. Tara’s parents are thrilled to have their prodigal daughter back, while others try to dig beneath her perceived lies to the truth. The most tragic character is Richie, Tara’s boyfriend at the time of her disappearance who never truly recovered from the loss and the subsequent criminal investigation. Other characters live calm, content lives in which the only discordant notes are Tara’s maybe-real, maybe-not experiences.
Add to all of this an opening section that explicitly sets up an unreliable (and unnamed) narrator, and you end up with a subtle, multilayered novel that’s sure to keep you thinking long after you turn the final page. Joyce slowly builds perspectives, images and history into the narrative until, by the end of the novel, you realize that a deceptively simple premise has turned into a surprisingly deep and complex story.
With its relatively big cast and decades-spanning narrative, Some Kind of Fairy Tale is very different from Graham Joyce’s last novel The Silent Land, which feels almost minimalistic in comparison. The Silent Land read like a somewhat inflated novella to me, but Some Kind of Fairy Tale is the full experience: a solid slice-of-life drama filled with fascinating characters and a typical Graham Joyce twist. It couldn’t have been told using even one page less, making it a much more satisfying read. It’s not his very best work, but that still means it’s miles ahead of the rest of the field.
If you’re already a fan of the author, you won’t need my recommendation to pick this up. If you’re new to Graham Joyce, I’d maybe suggest trying The Tooth Fairy or Requiem first. After those, Some Kind of Fairy Tale will almost inevitably end up on your reading list too.
Edit: if this book sounds good, make sure to keep following Far Beyond Reality because it looks like I’ll have a great giveaway of this novel some time next week…