The Limits of Enchantment, by Graham Joyce

A wild child at the dawn of a new age
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The Independent Culture

It is important that a novelist should know how things feel - the smell of fresh-picked herbs, the grief of parting - but it is also important to know the facts and circumstances that surround those moments of sensuous presence. Graham Joyce's novels hover, sometimes uneasily, on the borders of genre territory, though that genre varies between the thriller, fantasy and the horror novel. That is because he is a writer fascinated by his factual material, and by characters who would not be the same without it.

It is important that a novelist should know how things feel - the smell of fresh-picked herbs, the grief of parting - but it is also important to know the facts and circumstances that surround those moments of sensuous presence. Graham Joyce's novels hover, sometimes uneasily, on the borders of genre territory, though that genre varies between the thriller, fantasy and the horror novel. That is because he is a writer fascinated by his factual material, and by characters who would not be the same without it.

The Limits of Enchantment is a novel about the making of a young witch that remains profoundly agnostic about the objective reality of her visions and powers. Fern has been brought up, some time in the late Sxities, by Mammy, who is an unofficial midwife, occasional dispenser of herbal abortions, and one of a community of the wise and cunning. When Mammy is taken into hospital with advanced cancer, Fern has to find a way of surviving when those who are scared of such people close in. At various points, she faces eviction and institutionalisation. And she is very much a teenager, full of half-smart solutions to her problems that tend to make them worse.

Joyce has been very clever in picking precisely his date, when the local powers-that-be of rural society no longer have the absolute authority they once did, and when the local hippies are liable to include a slumming lawyer. At the same time, the relationship between Fern and the hippies is not as cosy it might have been later. Joyce has a clear sense of the historical process whereby traditional healers like Mammy and Fern inserted themselves into the rise of modern paganism. Fern is entirely a creature of her moment, although being brought up by a much older woman means that she is adrift from the popular culture of her peers.

The fact that Joyce knows his way, intellectually and viscerally, around herbal medicine and vision quests is not all of what makes this such a good book. Much of it depends on the difficult relationships Fern has with people far more in the modern world than she: the local policeman and schoolteacher, the slimily seductive estate manager. Joyce's sense of these interactions includes, but is not dominated by, some wonderful social comedy as well as a sense of potential betrayal.

Fern and her friends snatch her survival and future against the odds. We know what they cannot, which is that the chances are that it is not only her status as narrator which guarantees her a future. Part of the intelligence of this novel lies in the way, echoed in its title, that it leaves parts of Fern's story to be told by the reader's own intelligence and imagination.

The reviewer edited 'Reading the Vampire Slayer' (IB Tauris)

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