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Some Kind Of Fairy Tale
Graham Joyce
Gollancz paperback £9.99

review by Patrick Hudson

The basic story of Some Kind Of Fairy Tale is a familiar one from folklore transferred to the present day. Twenty years ago, 16-year-old Tara was taken away from her Leicestershire home by the fairies. She spent what she thought was six months in fairyland but when she returned, 20 years had passed. Some Kind Of Fairy Tale is the story of that return.

Her unexplained disappearance has had a profound effect on the people around her. Her parents have grown old and still carry the burden of her loss. The bond between her older brother Peter and his best friend Richie was broken forever when Richie was accused of murdering her. Richie himself was left a wreck by the experience. It's a great dramatic set-up, with unhealed wounds and lingering resentments at the ready to drive things forward. Graham Joyce builds up a cast of believably ordinary characters in extremis and then lets them get on with the business of dealing with Tara's return and the inevitable clash of emotions.

The reality of Tara's encounter is an important issue in the book. It's the central one for her family who don't know what to make of her re-appearance, although they all have their opinions. Tara's psychiatrist gets a few chapters to outline his own theories about what's going on, invoking Jung and his archetypes as an alternative take on the nature of other worldly experiences, dismissing them as goblins of the mind rather than a real otherworld.

Joyce always keeps us one step removed from the fairy experiences as we only have Tara's first-person testimony. She recounts her experiences with the detail and immediacy of real life but the book doesn't attempt to build a coherent setting of them. We're not required to consider plot distractions or mechanical antics outside of a few unresolved gestures at verisimilitude, like the business about finding out Tara's age with her teeth. The fairy abduction is a kind of absence in this way, one that leaves the book free to explore its themes without having to deal with the nitty-gritty of crime and punishment.

There's a great subplot about Peter's son, Jack, who accidentally shoots the old lady next door's cat with his brand new Christmas air rifle. It's ripe with folkloric imagery - Jack's got a fairy tale hero name, and he's a boy with a man's weapon who learns better. The dotty Mrs Larwood has a certain witchy quality, with her bad-tasting cake and flat lemonade. There's even a changeling, of a sort, and a directly stated moral lesson of the classic fairy tale type.

There are no actively supernatural shenanigans in this subplot. It's a slice of life until you start seeing things through the lens of the fairy tale. This engages with one of the central themes of Some Kind Of Fairy Tale: even as the characters try and make sense of this eruption of the supernatural in their midst, the book asks us to consider what similar eruptions of the inexplicable mean in fiction.

The argument is made more explicitly about fantasy fiction in the choice of epigrams that head up each chapter. As well as fragments from literature about fairies and snippets of fairy lore are a number of quotations that address the literary uses of fantasy. Quotes from Marina Warner, John Clute, Charles Dickens and Albert Einstein - among others - emphasise that fairy tales can reveal truths that other types of story cannot. I think the words of Bruno Bettleheim, that head up chapter nine, sum this argument up best:

"The unrealistic nature of these tales (which narrow-minded rationalists object to) is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales' concern is not useful information about the external world but the inner process taking place in an individual."

We're used to thinking of fairy tales as moral tales aimed primarily at children. The broad emotions and generic themes in the famous tales reflect the myths and legends they're descended from, perhaps easy elements to remember for oral cultures. There's a line of descent from tales that incorporate existing folklore like those of Perrault or Grimm to the whimsical and absurd tales of Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Andersen in the Victorian era.

Fairy tales seemed to wane a little in popularity after this period. Their critical reputation fell as the realm of the fairy tale was colonised by the nursery story and even stories explicitly aimed at adults - like Gulliver's Travels - became kiddie fodder. The times were changing, too. After two world wars, perhaps such stories were unsuited to capturing the horror of industrial scales of destruction and the spirit of the times had its eye on the future and the space race. Fantasies dwindled compared to adventures and romances set against the back drop of futuristic space.

Some of the fairy tale's magic was absorbed into the genres - adventure and weird fiction, then full blown swords and sorcery and especially horror, and there were occasional oddballs from outside the genres, such as Mervin Peake and Angela Carter. For a while, however, realism and futurism (particularly of the dystopian or catastrophic type) dominated the mainstream imaginarium.

That's the reason for the quotations from the great and the good. They articulate this book's thesis on the value of fairy tales. Tara's psychiatrist is the voice of the critic in the text, re-framing the transcendent experience of fairyland as a mental aberration to be expunged in the name of a cure.

I don't know if we really need to have this argument any more. This sort of story came back with a bang during the 1990s and has much more mainstream acceptance than when I was growing up. Children's literature has gained adult attention and a clutch of highly successful authors - led by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett - have led a revival in the sort of whimsical fantasy that you could confidently call a fairy tale.

Some Kind Of Fairy Tale is a great example of this contemporary take on the fairy tale genre and its own best piece of evidence of the power of the fantasy in literature. It doesn't need to defend its literary approach: it's all there in the warp and weft of the tale we're being told, curious, humane and perceptive.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press