27 September, 2022

LitStack Review: Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Some Kind of Fairy TaleSome Kind of Fairy Tale
Graham Joyce
Publication Date:  July 2, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-385-53578-6

Yet another World Fantasy Awards – Best Novel nominee, and yet another wonderful story.

Many, many folk tales, fireside stories, elder manuscripts and vestiges of ancient lore tell of the abduction of (usually) fair young maidens by the fey, by faerie folk.  I dare say, this notion still holds dear in the notions of many fair young maidens (and a fair number of not so young maids, as well).  It’s one of the most romantic of the epic daydreams out there.

But what if such an abduction really did take place, not just in the pages of yore, but in the here and now?  And what if it happened to someone in your family?  Or at least that’s what your sister says, the one who disappeared suddenly without a trace, and then shows up on Christmas Day, 20 years later.  Stories are one thing, the day in and day out experience of ordinary lives quite another.  Would you believe her?  Would you really?

That is the premise of award-winning author Graham Joyce‘s fantasy novel Some Kind of Fairy Tale. Fifteen year old Tara Martin was the kind of girl you noticed and didn’t forget.  She was not self-absorbed, rare in one her age, and she was smart, pretty, beguiling.  She had about her “an unsettling calm” and an effortless style; she was a leader who had no need of followers.

Her brother Peter was two years older than Tara, and was keenly aware of the differences between them, but he loved her fiercely nonetheless.

Something in Tara’s frame, something in her delicacy, had always made Peter want to protect her.  More than once he’d wondered if they had different fathers.  He had a large, lumbering physique, a gentle giant, slow-witted, according to his own assessment; she, by contrast, was mercurial, slender-boned, and sharp-tongued.  He was earthly, she was aerial.  He was made of clay and iron; she was made of fire and dreaming.

Just before her disappearance, Tara had been with her boyfriend, Richie.  Richie was also Peter’s best friend; together, years before, the two boys had formed a band.  The band sucked, Richie as lead guitar was the only one with any real talent, but it had bonded the pair as they moved towards adulthood, giving them a purpose and a platform to dream.  Once Tara disappeared, though, everything changed.

She and Richie had argued while walking in the Outwoods, a stretch of ancient forest.  It had been May, and the bluebells had blanketed the woods in a profusion of color and scent that was astonishing.  When Richie refused to accept what she was telling him, Tara ran away from him, through the woods, hiding from his hollering, from his searching for her.  After a few hours, he gave up, went home.  She caught a ride back into town, but refused to talk to him later when he called, refused to see him when he showed up at her house the next day.  It drove him crazy.

Then she was gone.  She had taken her bike and had gone to the Outwoods, and disappeared.  There had been a search; the police, the community, the family, Richie.  They found Tara’s bike; it had been covered with bushes, as if in hiding.  It had Richie’s fingerprints all over it (“Well, that would be because I ride it with her all the time.”).  But no Tara.

Eventually, suspicion turned to Richie.  He had felt it even during the search, but with the lack of any other evidence, it intensified, as did the investigation of his involvement.  Although the police could never link him to any crime, the damage had been done.  Where he had once been a surrogate son, he now was no longer welcome at the Martin household.  He and Peter, once best of friends, no longer spoke.

And then suddenly, out of the blue, 20 years later, Tara shows up at her parents’ door.  By now, Peter has married and has four children, aged 15 to five.  Although he has a degree in social psychology, he has chosen to be a farrier.  It’s not a lucrative job, but he likes being his own boss, doing things his own way.  He had moved on from Tara; she’s not been forgotten, but pushed into the past.  His children have no knowledge of her, they do not know that they ever had an aunt.  But now there she is in the flesh (and flesh that has not seemed to have aged a day), with some cockamamie story of traveling for the last 20 years, a story that Peter knows is fake, that she hasn’t been to the places she names, and she knows that he knows.

Eventually, the “real” story comes out, at least what Tara says is real.  Of wandering into the Outwoods, and settling down on a rock covered in green moss and orange lichen, of unknowingly crossing over the threshold to another land, through some sort of doorway manifest in the bluebells.

The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water.  And the sky above seemed to have fallen down on to the earth floor; and I didn’t know if the sky was earth or the earth was water.  I had been turned upside down.  I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me from falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky.  But I couldn’t hold on, and I know I went soaring.

She is approached by a man on a white draft horse, who charms her even if he won’t give her his name, and she goes with him, even knowing how ridiculous it all sounds.  It simply feels like the right thing to do.  They pass through the twilight and end at a large lake, and a strange people with strange ways.  She remains there for six months, until all the elements align and the crossing back to “her” world is again possible.  But when she returns, Tara realizes with a shock that what for her has been six months has been 20 years in the world she left behind.  Her parents have gotten old, her brother has a daughter who is as old as Tara was when she disappeared, familiar landmarks have disappeared, there are things such as the internet and smart phones, and the world has moved on without her.

But is she to be believed?  The eclectic psychiatrist that she acquiesces to visit is intrigued, and sure that her affliction is explainable.  Peter is skeptical, and torn.  And Richie – Richie has the scab that he has built up around the wound of his life after losing the love of his life, his best friend, the closest thing he had to family, his reputation and any standing he might of had in the community ruthlessly picked away to expose the festering that never truly healed.  Is Tara mad, or are the rest of them mad to even consider that there may be a germ of truth to what she says?  With no proof, can there be acceptance?  And what comes next?  Life can’t simply go back to the way it was before, but will the players be able to withstand a complete upheaval of their lives a second time?

By weaving past and present, utter conviction with healthy skepticism, fact with fancy, and strands of the story of the last 20 years told by many different voices, Graham Joyce has woven a tale that is both timeless and thoroughly modern.  There is little sugar coating, only short flights of fancy, even in Tara’s tale.  She is clear:  the people she was with are not “little people with lacy wings and hats made out of acorn cups.”  They are dangerous, not to be messed with.  They are violent, volatile, transparent, jealous, vengeful.  There are reasons why she left, beyond family, beyond Richie, beyond the ties that bind.

Yet every time Tara does something that makes her tale more believable, a logical explanation debunks her, or some small piece of evidence does not fit.  We as readers are drawn in time and again, then pulled in a different direction, then left adrift.  We agree with the anger and the tears.  We get mad.  We want to believe, but can’t.  And then there are the ways that Tara’s return affects those around her that are totally unexpected, and tangentially unsettling – Peter’s son Jack, and the old lady who lives across the street.  Who is it, then, who is truly dangerous?

Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a wonderfully written book that does not keep us guessing as much as takes us on an amazing ride, challenging our sensibilities while beautifully evoking our senses.  Even at the height of our skepticism, we cannot help but be drawn in to a world where the very colors exist beyond our mundane reality.

The sun was up and I want to say that it was golden, but it wasn’t golden, it was the color of treacle.  I want to say the grass was green, but it wasn’t, it was turquoise, the color of a quarry pool.  The rocks were lion-colored and glimmered with quartz, and the sky I wanted to call blue was in reality lilac.  And the colors were moist.  It was as much as I could do to prevent myself from getting off the horse and putting my hands into these colors, to see if they would come off on my fingers.

Who wouldn’t want to visit a land like that, eh?  If only it were real…. right?  Right?