Introduced by Jayne Evans, Hay-on-Wye Library
I met Graham Joyce in the ’70s when he was the charismatic president of the Students’ Union at Bishop Lonsdale College in Derby and I was a feckless maiden. He used to sit in the pub ranting about writing, which seemed perfectly normal at the time, but was memorable enough for me to search t’internet many years later to discover whether he had indeed followed his bliss. To my surprise not only had he written books but had won many awards, including the World and British Fantasy Awards. Not being an orc or gnome fan I left it for a couple of years, but eventually I ordered The Facts of Life from Powys Libraries.
What a fool I’d been to tarry and what a novel it is.
The story of the Coventry family of seven daughters of Martha Vine, whose youngest member is a fey girl who produces a fatherless child, a boy. I was enthralled, amused, and touched. The girl, Cassie, being unable to care for her child Martha dictates that her daughters each look after him in turn, a device which enables us to share the lives of different working-class folk in post-war Britain. This is sometimes hilarious and often moving as we follow the boy, Frank, and his special gift, through his rackety childhood. One of Graham’s great gifts is his ability to write women so well. The Vine girls are no ciphers, but full, rounded women, with discrete personalities, strengths and weaknesses and even though sorting out seven siblings is a little challenging initially their characters soon burst through. Frank fortunately doesn’t tarry long with his spiritualist aunts, Evelyn and Ida, but his adventures with Aida and Gordon, the town embalmer, and Olive and her unfaithful husband William are warm and beautifully described. He is happy on the farm with Una and Tom where he meets the Man-Behind-The-Glass. His sojourn in Oxford, with his radical aunt Beatie and her boyfriend Bernie, are hysterically funny as his mother Cassie sets the cat among the pigeons with her willingness to fulfil her sexual desires, and the commune is ravaged by the conflict around the minutiae of left-wing politics.
Frank’s gift, inherited from his grandmother and mother, is what makes this novel difficult to classify because, as with all Graham’s novels, a supernatural element runs through it. The other worldly events are neither alarming nor something to be vanquished, but merely a fact of life. So Frank encounters the Man-Behind-The-Glass, a puzzle solved beautifully and affectingly.
Graham preferred not to be thought as a magic realist writer but as a follower of the literary tradition of Algernon Blackwood or the Welsh writer Arthur Machen. He liked to call his genre Old Peculiar, pun absolutely intended I imagine.
Graham died last year. It’s rubbish and is a loss to many, many people. To get a feel for his wonderful writing I urge you to read his last blog post. It’s beautiful. Then read The Facts of Life.