A day and a half after I arrived in Wales, I was already enchanted by Caerleon, with its green grass and secret – at least to me – garden, its history of harbouring Alfred, Lord Tennyson who began writing his Idylls of the King there. Almost a decade earlier, I’d spent a summer sighing and shivering over Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, on which Tennyson based his cycle of poems. I should have known then…
“Any man can lose his hat in a fairy-wind.” Any woman, too… In Cardiff, I finally gave up and let go of it in a bookshop called Troutmark. And if there is one thing better than a solitary browse, it is a browse with a friend equally in love with books, one who also roams around the aisles searching for surprises.
Shelves and shelves later, I left with some old favourites (I could not resist) and this new-found inspiration – Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale.
I picked it up from the shelf because of the light green of the cover, surrounded by sharp grass stalks, and the blurb which mentions enchantment and wood clearings. The first sentence sucked me in straight away. “In the deepest heart of England there is a place where everything is at fault.” There is something in such magical first sentences which promises that whatever happens later was always meant to flow exactly like this, like a spell that repeats itself, in a resolved circle.
Graham Joyce’s fiction is speculative and has been hard to fit into a specific genre. Some Kind of Fairy Tale tells of Tara, who, twenty years earlier, vanished in the woods of Leicestershire, in the bluebell season, after quarrelling with her boyfriend Richie. Thin and strange-eyed, she returns, claiming that she lived with the fairies for six months only, that she is still a teenager. Some chapters recount her time in that other kingdom, where Hiero (pronounced Yarrow) took her and never stopped yearning for her. Then others centre around her brother, Peter, his wife Genevieve, and their children, or around Richie. With Tara’s return, the distant and unusual mingles with daily family life … Jack, the son of Peter and Genevieve, searches for a way to make it up to the old lady who has lost her cat, and in the meantime, Tara charms mice away from Richie’s house. And yet, the most haunting of all is the havoc she wreaks in the hearts of her brother and ex-boyfriend. It’s the slow aching realisation that loss reversed is no less a loss. When I was little, lost in the magic of stories, I longed to be taken, to escape to some place like Avalon. Then one day, I chanced upon Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Now I think of literary fairies as neither good nor bad, regardless of their portrayal. The space they inhabit is just different. I still long for it, but I know the only way of reaching it is with human strokes.
Joyce’s language is a thing of beauty, words that spring scenes at you. The bluebells beckon and their perfume lingers, conjured. With it, some ancient, handed-down magic dissolves in the air. Could be the hooves of Hiero’s steed, could be the threads invisibly spun by a masterful storyteller.
Inside the daily, there are things that pop up, defying order established by repetition. Some of those things are ours for the taking. But there is also a kind of strangeness that needs a special understanding, which all of us, or I hope just most of us, are doomed never to find. It’s a lack of a common code. It’s the impossibility of searching for one together.
To live with the fairies is to let in a longing and never stop feeding it, until there’s no erasure, until it becomes like time passing, a necessity. Go with them once, and six months become twenty years, if you ever return to that previous world.
This is just a story. It wags no cautionary fingers. But still… It would be wise to time your adventures. Be careful how long you spend in worlds spun by strangers. They sound so fine, like a daydream sprung to life. It must come alive only through me, as I choose to go, as I read the second sentence… But then again, this wind…
Graham Joyce died on 9 September 2014. May his world(s) last in the memories of his family and in the books we carry with us.