Top positive review
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on 14 January 2003
A psychic matriarch, seven daughters and one magical boy hold center stage in Graham Joyce's latest novel, The Facts of Life, a work situated comfortably somewhere between the best mainstream fiction and the subtlest works of fantasy. Be it magical realism or literary horror, the key ingredients here, as with all of Joyce's works, are characters you can reach out and touch. And they touch you right back.
Set in during and post-WWII Coventry, England, the novel opens with "wayward ... fey" Cassie Vine and the bundle in her arms, Frank, whom she fails to give away to a prospective foster mother. Returning home to her mother, Martha and her six sisters, Cassie triggers a discussion that will set the tone and struggle for the rest of the novel. As Cassie herself "is the last girl on Earth fit to raise a child," Martha and her daughters agree that Frank should be raised by the entire clan.
Passed from Martha and Aunt Beatie Vine's own care to Aunt Una and Uncle Tom's farm, to his twin aunts Evelyn and Ina, it becomes clear that Frank is special and possessed of special abilities. Here at the farm, young Frank discovers the Man-Behind-The-Glass, a mysterious figure trapped in the Earth, constantly demanding that Frank bring him things.
Meanwhile, the secret of Frank's conception remains with Cassie, buried deep in the night that German bombers circled over Coventry dropping incendiary and explosive payloads until most of the city was leveled. Cassie, who is regularly possessed of "blue" periods during which she tends to wander far, must often leave Frank in the care of his more stable relatives, transferring him from household-to-household, including an experimental commune and a house with an active mortuary parlor in the back. From each he takes away a lesson about life.
Through it all, Martha watches, patiently directing Franks care from place-to-place, occasionally visited at the front door by precognitive apparitions that help her pave the way.
Though a quiet work, The Facts of Life is no less gripping than Joyce's more conventional work in novels like Requiem and The Tooth Fairy. It's gently graceful characters and precise language makes this alternately horrific and humorous work a treasure whose pages will have slipped through the reader's fingers far too quickly.