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The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce
(Penguin Signet, £5.99, paperback, 342 pages; ISBN 0-451-18435-1; 1996. Reprinted 28 March 2002 by Gollancz, £6.99, 320 pages, ISBN 1-85798-342-4.)

Like Jonathan Carroll's, and to a lesser extent Nicholas Royle's, the world inhabited by Graham Joyce's characters is cover scan - Gollancz editiondistinctly our own, but with a hint of something not quite right, a fantastical element overlapping into reality. In the case of The Tooth Fairy, this element is the entity from which the book draws its title, and much of its action.

The Tooth Fairy, a mischievous foul-mouthed parody of the popular myth, appears one night to protagonist Sam Southall, and then at subsequent points throughout his childhood and adolescence, weaving itself inextricably into his life. It perpetrates, or is indirectly responsible for, a number of "pranks" - ranging right through the moral spectrum from vandalism and general trouble-making to murder - for which Sam and his circle of friends take the blame. As only Sam can see the Fairy, the reader is continually suspicious of whether it is real or a kind of imaginary friend. Indeed, Sam attends regular counselling sessions with a child psychiatrist who vocalises the reader's doubts in an attempt to exorcise what he considers to be mere fantasy. But as the book progresses this selectivity is stretched; the Fairy infiltrates more and more of the world outside Sam's immediate life, and we are left in limbo until the final few chapters as to the truth of its nature.

More than anything, The Tooth Fairy is about the highs, lows, joys, guilt and pain of growing up. The Fairy itself personifies childhood; at first, with Sam at five or six and unconscious of his own sexuality, it is sexless, but as time goes on it develops femininity - at the behest of Sam's burgeoning desire - and is damaged by the oncoming threat of adulthood. A good example of this is when, because of jealousy, the Fairy gets revenge on Sam for stealing the last of his father's condoms in order to sleep with his girlfriend; several months later Sam's mother is pregnant, which, according to the Tooth Fairy, is all Sam's fault. It's the clever subtleties like this which make the novel so good.

But simultaneously, if I have one minor criticism, it's that at times the plot became a little formulaic: fairy appears; argues with Sam; does something bad; Sam and friends get blamed. However, this is only a slight problem, as the variation of events, and the beauty with which they are told, draws you in and helps you ignore any nuances of predictability.

As well as being brilliantly structured, well characterised and completely compelling, The Tooth Fairy is quite simply a wonderful piece of prose. It is indicative of where today's leading horror/fantasy/slipstream authors are going. It is well-observed, wry, and in places elegant to the point of being painful to the aspiring writer. For evidence of this, check out the scene in the church on Christmas Eve, or the acid trip in the woods. Both are excellent.

I would recommend The Tooth Fairy to anyone who still believes that horror has to be about Rats and Slugs and Chainsaw-wielding psychopaths. I would also, however, recommend it to anyone fancying a decently spooky read of high literary merit.

You will smile many times while turning these pages.

Review by Jason Gould.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:
fiction - read an extract from Graham Joyce's novel, The Stormwatcher
reviews - a review of Joyce's Web series novel, Spiderbite

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© Jason Gould 6 November 1997