If you glance through the writers represented on this blog, you’ll find few men. Over the years, I’ve been disappointed with the way male authors portray women in novels, and tend to reach for more female authors. There are notable exceptions, of course, such as Dickens. (He, too, does a terrible job with most of his women characters, but his writing has many other redeeming qualities.) And there’s Jasper Fforde, the wackily brilliant creator of the Thursday Next series.
A brief review of Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale made me think he might be another exception. While I’m not going to run out and read all Joyce’s earlier books, I savored this gentle story of a young woman who’s taken by “fairies” and then returned. Like Fforde, Joyce works in the fantasy genre, where the characters can be believable in different ways; yet he works hard here—and succeeds, I think—to knit the fantastical into humdrum reality. (Unlike Fforde, whose weird worlds are their own realities.)
In Fairy Tale, teenaged Tara Martin follows a mysterious man through the woods and into another land that looks like this one but doesn’t work the same way. The people there are sexually voracious, have remarkable knowledge of music and the mind, and must be wary of the nearby lake’s “feelings.” After six months away, the hinge between the worlds is open again, briefly—and Tara comes home. Although twenty years have passed for her family and friends, she’s barely aged at all. (Or has she?)
Having Tara back is a miracle of sorts, but it sets off alarm bells, too. Her family is convinced she’s suffered a trauma that has caused her to blank out two decades and fill it with tales of bewitching bluebells and magical rides on a white horse. It’s not easy for her aging parents to have a teenager at home again, and her brother resents the years of worry and grief. Richie, Tara’s old boyfriend—who was under suspicion of murdering her—might even be ready to love her again. But no one wants to hear Tara’s stories about where she’s been.
The most extraordinary thing about it all was how simple it was just to carry on. There were meals to be prepared and eaten; dishes to be washed; clothes to be laundered, ironed, and put on and taken off; beds to be slept in and made and unmade. The prosaic needs of day-to-day living blunted all impact of the miraculous; it demanded that the glorious be relegated. And she knew that even if she were able to convince everyone involved that she had witnessed something remarkable, had undergone a transcendental and miraculous experience, reached and returned from another world, it almost seemed like it would not ever, and could not ever, truly matter.
This is the tension that Fairy Tale explores: how the everyday muffles the marvelous—and yet we can only ever recognize the miraculous in comparison to the routine. Joyce introduces each chapter with a quote that highlights this tension. Some tell the story of an Irish woman, circa 1895, whose family was convinced she was a changeling (with dire consequences). Others toy with various notions of fantasy and “reality.” I especially like these two:
“To light a candle is to cast a shadow.” Ursula LeGuin
“There is neither explanation nor teaching in the true wonder tale.” A. S. Byatt
And there’s a great one from Dickens himself: “In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected.”
Some Kind of Fairy Tale makes me reconsider the possibilities of the mysterious right outside my own front door. As in most fairy tales, there’s an inevitability to this story that feels just right.