At the heart of Graham Joyce’s new novel, “Some Kind of Fairy Tale,” is a familiar, even shopworn, notion: That our everyday reality is not the only reality; that alongside this world there exists another, magical world. Call it fairyland. So far so bad, you might say, fearing a saccharine tale infested with petal-clad sprites. Joyce’s imagination, however, is far darker than that. “There is always a terrible and peculiar kind of accounting,” one character observes of the retribution carried out when the magical realm collides with our own. And Joyce’s fairy tale is one of dark and dangerous collision.
The novel opens on Christmas Day in a small town in the English Midlands. Dell and Mary Martin, an elderly couple, sit down to their traditional Christmas lunch. They clink glasses. “It was the cheers moment, that gentle touching of the crystalware, that Dell hated the most,” Joyce writes. “Feared it and detested it.” Ritual freshens memory, in this case the memory of a lost daughter. Tara Martin, now missing for 20 years, disappeared as a teenager while walking in the nearby woods.
But suddenly she is back: “Most people rang the electrical bell, but today someone was knocking. . . . Dell had to release a small chain and unlock the inner door before opening the porch door. A young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, gazed back at him from behind dark glasses. . . . At last she spoke. ‘Hello Dad.’ ”
It is a shocking moment. Yet Joyce’s description of it is wonderfully deadpan. An acute observer of domestic detail, he keeps us firmly planted in the Martins’ tidy English reality even as that reality is abruptly shaken.
Throughout the novel, this flat, economical style is relieved by rapturously lyrical passages as the narrative shuttles back and forth between the known world and the other world. For it is there, Tara reveals, that she has been dwelling for two decades. Or for six months, according to that other calendar.
“She hardly seemed to have aged,” Tara’s 40-year-old brother notices as he hugs her. “She smelled of something belonging to the outdoors he couldn’t identify. Rain, maybe. Leaf. Mushroom. May blossom. The wind.” Tara should be 36, but she looks 16, and dental analysis confirms that impression. She eats only fruit and nuts now, her eyes are unusually sensitive to light and she is unexpectedly frank with the condescending psychiatrist engaged to uncover the truth behind her disappearance.
Tara’s story is a variation on the ancient tale of a mortal lured away by fairies. Years ago, in the bluebell woods of Charnwood Forest, she met a stranger riding a white horse. “I felt quite safe with him,” she recalls. “He had such a gentle air.” Entranced, she was carried off through a weirdly altered landscape. “When we got to the top of the hill we could see the last red streaks of the sun like the scrap of something torn on the mountains in the west, mountains I didn’t recognize.” The subsequent adventure unfolds gradually and intermittently, accumulating hypnotic force. Joyce plunges us into the astonishingly beautiful yet disturbing world that Tara entered, and then he repeatedly pulls us back, not only to the present, where Tara’s reappearance bewilders those who love her, but also to her teenage past, where more prosaic secrets fester.
“Youth fears nothing because it knows nothing,” Tara muses when she revisits a boyfriend from an old teenage love affair, one that ended in a violent quarrel just before her disappearance. “You have no idea,” she tells him. “There is a veil to this world, thin as smoke, and it draws back occasionally. . . . Don’t make me prove it, because I can put things in your mind if I want to.”
Although Joyce has created a modern story that seems startling and immediate, he’s drawing on the actual case of an Irishwoman named Bridget Cleary, whose husband burned her to death in 1895 because, he claimed, she had been abducted and replaced by a changeling. In this charming if occasionally overwrought drama, Joyce vividly depicts both the enchanted and the mortal terrain, making one as tangible as the other. Yet Tara, returned but altered, can never be at home again in either place.
Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer.
SOME KIND OF FAIRY TALE
By Graham Joyce
310 pp. $24.95