Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review - The Facts of Life

The Facts of Life
by Graham Joyce
Tied for 2003 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I think I'm getting a grip on modern urban fantasy. All you have to do is take an innocent protagonist, send them on a spiritual journey (particularly if it's a coming of age story), and have them encounter a series of strange things which you assemble by randomly selecting adjectives and nouns. You can pad things out by giving the protagonist a dysfunctional family life.

Of course it helps if you tell this story as well as Graham Joyce does. It's just that this structure has become almost as rigid as the epic fantasy quests and that's not a healthy thing for a genre.

Our protagonist is a boy born into a large family living in Coventry just after the end of World War II. The family is touched with magic that lets some of them be aware of spirits around them. His mother is flighty and prone to vanish for days at a time so it is arranged that he will be passed from family member to family member. As he grows the child encounters the strange quirks of his family members and learns to appreciate each of them in their own way.

What makes The Facts of Life really stand out in the crowd is that Graham Joyce gives the book an impressive voice. For the first ten pages I thought it was going to annoy me. There's a shift after the first chapter to a different style that Joyce uses through the rest of the book. It's a style that is colloquial to the 1950's UK and it gave the book a very friendly tone. It turned the narrative voice into one of the extended family that is at the heart of the book and by extension brought me as the reader in closer.

The family itself is a mix of familiar archetypes and unusual breaks in convention. The negligent mother, for example, is not negligent due to any of the usual reasons (though that might be expected given that this is a fantasy novel). On the other hand the benevolent dictator of a matriarch who keeps the family together is an archetype that will be very recognizable even when Joyce adds his own tragic spin on it.

The only real misstep in this that I found was an unfortunately heavily cliched trip to a commune where college intellectuals attempt to put their radical beliefs into practice. It fits the novel's themes but this group of characters is about as interesting as dishwater.

The city of Coventry itself places a large role in the novel. It grows from the ashes at the same time as the child grows and the history of the city is often referenced. I'm sure it is something that will be familiar to any readers in the UK though American readers might have some trouble with the references.

One more positive thing about The Facts of Life is that Joyce never loses the thread of his novel like some urban fantasies do. The book is a collection of vignettes from the protagonist's childhood and Joyce remembers that it is the story of that child growing up which means they flow into each other. Even the digressions exist to illuminate what happened to this family. It's a shame that I have to mention that but too many books I've read lately are a random assortment of anecdotes that drift around until the book ends. I can't say that The Facts of Life really builds to a climax since there is no moment of revelation or dramatic confrontation; what it has is an ending that let's the reader know that life has changed and it will be better.

The Facts of Life is a familiar story told very well and for that reason I recommend it. Graham Joyce painted a picture of a family that will be instantly recognizable to anyone and at the same time has their own unique quirks. The result is a very enjoyable book.