Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Could Have Used More Changlings

Book Reviewed: Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce

When I was a kid, I hated fantasy.  I had absolutely no tolerance for magic or mysticism or anything that wasn't completely tactile.  Sure, I could watch a Disney movie and be perfectly happy.  But when it came to playing or reading, it was reality or nothing.  I realize now just how weird that is.  Most people enjoy fantasy as children and then grow out of it.  Instead, I grew into an appreciation for the fantastical after college.  After discovering a love for urban fantasy and mash-ups (in particular, Neil Gaiman's novels for both adults and children), I began to open up to the genre a bit more. 

That being said, there are some fantasy tropes I will never love.  One of those is the idea of fairies.  They bore me, and the whole concept always creeps up on the border of being cutesy.  So when I read a good review for Graham Joyce's new book, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, I assumed it wouldn't be for me.  After all, this book is deep in the fairy stuff.  But the fact that the book was about the aftermath of a tragic disappearance got to me, and I went ahead and read it in a couple days.  And while I actually did like the book, I had this weird feeling that my worst beliefs in the silliness of fairy-fantasies might just still hold true. 

Here's the problem.  In blending the almost-boring realm of domesticity with the out-there fantasy world of woodland sprites, Joyce is attempting to say all sorts of semi-profound things about humaniy.  But in the long run, I am always going to be more interested in the domestic.  As a kid who used to re-enact the most boring scenes from film and television (the part of Mister Rogers where he changes his sweater, the opening of The Little Mermaid where Sebastian lays out his music score on a rock), I am still more interested in the emotional significance of the day-to-day drama of human life than I am in the strange things we can't actually see.  It's not that I don't like a touch of supernatural in my life (I am all for ghosts and Harry Potter and whatnot), but the fantasy has to be interesting to me.  And again, fairies just aren't interesting in Bethland.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale begins with the return of Tara, who disappeared as a teenager twenty years earlier.  She comes back to her parents and now middle-aged brother, Peter, looking almost exactly the same as she did two decades ago.  She was kidnapped by fairies, she claims.  And now she's back.  The book deals with this dramatic return in a fairly realistic way - Tara's parents are glad she's back and are trying to avoid the drama of knowing where she really was, Peter is concerned about the truth and takes his sister to a psychiatrist.  The relationships between people really count here, especially Tara and Peter's relationship with Richie, a down-and-out musician who once dated Tara and was Peter's best friend before her disappearance.  Richie is the book's most interesting character (although I quite liked Peter as well), although Joyce doesn't flesh him out as much as I would have liked. 

Joyce does do a few interesting things here.  For one, he never tells the reader what to think or believe, which adds genuine tension to the plot.  He also does a good job in using Peter's family life as an entry point for the story.  His son Jack plays an important role as a kind of reader/writer surrogate, and by making Peter a farrier who lives in a cottage, Joyce gets extra mileage in his concept of the modern fairy tale.  Most importantly, he makes a sort of beautiful and unsaid claim at the end about what the passage of time does to the ones we love.  Every body changes, and if you don't see someone for a long period of time, even a lover or child or friend can become a complete stranger.  Strangely enough, I think Joyce could have used the idea of a changling - a creature taking the place of a real person, also related to fairy legend - to a larger degree.  He makes the point quite well, but the book's ending left me feeling a little unsure of what just happened.  I wanted more closure, and I can't decide if Joyce should have given it to us or not. 

This book is so close to being really good and original, but it never quites get there.  Joyce uses too many points-of-view, too many voices to get his story across.  And by making Tara so mysterious, he makes her a bit annoying as a character.  We can't know her because to know her would be to figure her out, and the story won't let that happen.  I think the things Joyce does well - the domestic stuff, the theme of loved ones changing over time, etc - he does really well.  I just wish the book had felt a little more substantial by the end.  I think I've had my fill of fairies for awhile. 

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