The Limits of Enchantment, by Graham Joyce
Another Orion proof - this time I picked it up because the Orion rep recommended it to me. I know that is his job, but we also seem to have similar taste, so I thought I'd give it a go. Graham Joyce is one of those authors who I've heard quite a bit about, and whose books I've picked up from time to time, but I've never actually had the urge to read one. The covers, or the blurbs, or something
put me off. To be honest, I don't think I would have read this one, either, unless someone had made me - again the description on the back just didn't make me sit up and want to read the book. Actually, I think I was sent a copy of the proof some months ago, but discarded it.
It would have been a shame if I didn't get to read this book, though - I ended up really enjoying it. It concerns a young girl (Fern) in 60's England - the Midlands - whose 'mother' is a witch/wise woman/whatever you want to call it. Their way of life is herbs, rituals and, quite often, rejection by a community that needs them but fears them. One of the services that they provide is advice and action on pregnancy and (this is the real problem) abortion. So when a young girl bleeds to death not long after being seen at their shack, everything changes. The spread of 'bureaucracy' - in the form of training and certificates for midwives, and the NHS providing many services for free - also threatens their way of life.
When Mammy is taken in to hospital, Fern must learn how to cope with all the things that she has never been taught about - men, sex, rent, work, bureaucracy. I tended to flip-flop between thinking that Mammy had been remiss in not teaching Fern about these things (or rather, not teaching her about what they mean - she understands the technicalities of all of them, but has no idea about their practice), or whether keeping her adopted daughter free of these troubles has allowed her to grow into a better person. Of course, the book would have contain a lot less tension if all of Fern's problems could be easily overcome, but Joyce manages to make Fern an interesting, believable character - even when her lack of social shills and graces are driving away people who want to help her.
The book does strike a couple of wrong notes - the hippies who move in nearby are cliched in the extreme, as is the 'Get orf my Land' Lord of the Manor who wants to evict Fern. On the other hand, most of the characters - especially Fern, Mammy and the other members of 'The Few' (those who believe in the old ways) - are wonderfully drawn, and, perhaps surprisingly, believable. Surprising because, in the end, this is a book about magic. Fern may profess a slight doubt as to what she has been taught, but in the end the mystic side of the novel seems to come out on top. Magic in literature is fine, but books rarely deal with it so convincingly as this one. The promo stuff on the back of the proof says that the book will be submitted for the Booker prize - a bit optimistic perhaps, but when I first saw that I almost laughed (I know, I know, I shouldn't prejudge). Having read it, I can see why they think they may have a chance.
I read this on the way to and from work 06/02/05 to 10/02/05, and during a train journey to Cambridge. I read the proof - the Hardback was published in January, ISBN: 0575072318