We tend to think that books, like cockroaches, will survive the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but they won’t.
They disappear, not just in the ravages of war like the Great Library of Alexandria, but through simple neglect, and it is our duty to keep fine novels alive.
Graham Joyce, born in 1954, was a most unlikely author; unlikely because he had the blunt honesty of a Yorkshire miner’s son but a writing style that was sensitive to the world’s wonderment. Unlikely, too, because he often wrote from a female perspective, and his books were more concerned with moods and atmospheres than plots.
When asked why he hadn’t attended one particularly fraught and territorial gathering of writers, he said: “Well, it’s all a load of bollocks, really, isn’t it?’” Nevertheless, Joyce became the multi award-winning author of The Tooth Fairy, The Limits of Enchantment, The Year of the Ladybird and Smoking Poppy. There are touches of Jonathan Carroll and Christopher Priest in his work, but his prose was more grounded in the everyday world than most magical realists. In The Facts of Life, set in war-devastated Coventry, young Frank is raised by his tough, stout-drinking grandmother and packed off to seven eccentric aunts who appear able to pass on female magic. As Frank exhibits symptoms of what we might call feminine intuition, Joyce explores the ways in which we experience the world, and what it means to be human.
In The Tooth Fairy, Sam encounters the titular malevolent spirit during his uncertain coming-of-age in the late 1960s, and the sprite (whether real or imagined) epitomises the grotesquerie of surviving puberty in a time of contradictory sexual liberation.
Joyce’s final novel was The Year Of The Ladybird, the beautifully observed story of a young man working in a holiday camp in the scorching summer of 1976, and again the magical element is used as a background to the confusions of lovestruck youth, this time with the added racial and political tensions of the era.
A tough-talking Yorkshireman who wrote with great delicacy and elegance about girls and boys, women and hardship, memory, joy, loss, and the roots of Englishness, Joyce should have found a far wider audience. He was diagnosed with aggressive lymphoma cancer, and died earlier this month at 59. His evocative novels and short stories feel like hopeful crib-notes for humanity. Such spiderweb enchantments are his public legacy, and his works deserve to survive.