In Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, fairies “are not little … And they don’t have wings. And you can mistake them for ordinary people”. They also rut like rabbits, live in 1970s-style communes, and jump into sentient lakes capable of orgasms. I recall none of these details from my childhood reading, but perhaps I led a sheltered life. Still, some things never change: these fairy folk, like traditional fairies everywhere, do indeed spirit people away – including Tara Martin, a girl who one Christmas “in the deepest heart of England” comes back into the lives of those who loved her after having disappeared 20 years before.
Tara appears to still be 15 years old, much to the disbelief and consternation of her family. She doesn’t make things any easier with an ethereal yet earthy story of having been charmed by Hiero (pronounced “Yarrow”), a handsome stranger on a white horse who took her to a strange land where time flows differently, bodies are just clothes for the soul, and free love is part of the culture. There’s no way to escape and a minimum stay requirement of six months (see: tides, storm patterns, arbitrary fairy train schedules), which, unbeknown to Tara, will translate into 20 human years.
One could dwell on the ways in which Some Kind of Fairy Tale riffs off fairy tales and offers commentary on them. However, the novel works best when it explores the relationship between past and present, which Joyce shows us is less a connection than an overlay, because the past is always with us. If that idea sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be wrong, but Joyce’s fiction has always displayed a certain generosity of spirit that lifts it above the ordinary. This generosity is not at all sentimental, but is alive with sentiment and an appreciation for the mysteries of life.
Joyce carefully interweaves third-person chapters about present-day Tara with first-person accounts that dramatise the past. We learn that following her disappearance, Tara’s parents were transformed overnight from confident and poised people “to frail, powerless, elderly, and lost individuals”. Worse, perhaps, Tara’s disappearance created a permanent rift between her brother Peter and her boyfriend, Richie – Peter’s best friend and a budding musician, both of which breaks Richie, accompanied as it is by his estrangement from Peter and police brutality. He is “a talent that had burned in the darkness and went out in the darkness”. now, 20 years later, Peter recognises that their friendship “was a noisy, angry clock that could neither be put back nor muted”. Charting these effects of Tara’s disappearance allows us to understand the trauma of her reappearance and creates a vibrant portrait of lives defined by a shared history.
Despite various pressures, Tara resolutely sticks to her story, but promises Peter that she will see a psychiatrist, the curmudgeonly Vivian Underwood. The resulting sessions add another layer of complexity, especially when Underwood tries to map Tara’s account to his own analysis of the subtext. At one point, Underwood observes that Tara seems well-adjusted and sane; it’s just that “she has enclosed the kingdom of her twenty years inside of an acorn cup”.
Joyce as a writer is a master charmer, and in general the glamour the author conjures up through the first three-quarters of the novel is mesmerising. his prose shines: the police searching for Tara are “out like blackberries in September”.
After a time, however, I began to feel that perhaps simultaneously too much and too little is going on. Readers suspicious of a slowly developing subplot involving Peter’s son and the old lady next door are right to wonder with unease if this element will eventually dovetail too neatly with Tara’s predicament. Worse, a threat to the real world from the fairy realm involving Hiero seems perfunctory and anti-climactic. The author may mean to de-glamorise the fairy world, but instead makes it boringly mundane; after a certain point, Hiero ought to wear a T-shirt reading “The numinous doesn’t live here any more”.
When Joyce has related the history of fairy myths in one chapter, deconstructed them through the psychiatrist’s notes, and begun most chapters with quotes about fairytales and fairy abductions, the reader has the right to expect that the last chapters will go beyond the source material – to surprise, to provoke, to challenge in some way. But instead, as Joyce himself incessantly points out, we have, in some guise, been here many times before.
• The Weird: a Compendium of strange and dark stories, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, is published by Corvus.