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The Facts of Life

by Graham Joyce

(Gollancz, £12.99, 263 pages, hardback, published 5 December 2002.)

Graham Joyce is, unquestionably, a remarkable author. The back cover of cover scanThe Facts of Life proclaims it -- he has won an unprecedented four British Fantasy Awards for Best Novel. It's certainly an achievement to be proud of. But as I read The Facts of Life, one question did begin to surface in my mind: Are four British Fantasy Awards not enough for the man?

Here is yet another gleaming gem of a novel, written in Joyce's beautifully fluid prose, eager to play with our perceptions. The Facts of Life tells of Frank Vine's childhood, from birth to age twelve. Born to single mother Cassie, Frank is passed around his six aunts to be brought up by each in turn, as decreed by family matriarch Martha Vine. Martha has an uncanny gift, brought to her in dreams; Cassie also has this gift, which manifests through her as profound and day-long reveries, and in best Joyce style it's rarely clear just how real or imagined the contents of these reveries are. It gradually becomes clear that Frank has the gift too, and how it affects him and those around him is more than I'm prepared to say in this review.

Frank is, of course, the focus of the story, but I'd have to say that Martha is the star. Joyce does an astonishing line in old women: headstrong, crafty, often stubborn but never exactly what you'd call cranky. Liz, a character in Dark Sister, was a fine example, but I think in Martha, Joyce has reached some sort of epiphany. The subtle manner in which she gets her way over her seven daughters entertained me greatly; as one daughter's husband remarks, Martha plays them all "like a bloody banjo". She comes across a little like Grandma in the 'Giles' cartoons, but more loveable (and less political). Joyce doesn't scrimp on his other characters, though, and by the end of the book you feel you've just about lived in the community of post-war Coventry.

So, what exactly is the nature of Frank's gift? Are Martha's visitors real in any sense? Just what did happen to Cassie the night Coventry cathedral got bombed? These and many other questions have no place on the lips of Joyce's readers. If you feel the need to try to make all the pieces fit, the time to do it is after you've turned the book's last page; but somehow, The Facts of Life seems much better with its mystery intact.

Review by John Toon.

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