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Smoking Poppy

by Graham Joyce

(Victor Gollancz, £12.99, 227 pages, hardback; published 18 October 2001. US edition published by Pocket Books.)

Sometimes you wonder at an author's choice of character name...

Graham Joyce's Smoking Poppy opens with Danny Innes desperately wanting Charlie back. The cover scanCharlie he craves is, it turns out, his daughter and not a Category A drug, but the fact that the Charlie in question (Danny's daughter) is in a Thai jail on drug charges makes you wonder why one of the main characters in this wonderfully tense and revelatory novel should have a bad pun for a name, and, if it wasn't deliberate, why didn't an editor at least question the choice? A minor point, perhaps, but distracting to the reader, raising unnecessary questions about what to expect from the book.

Danny is separated from his wife and living in bachelor squalor in a cold apartment amid piled-high clothes and half-assembled flatpack furniture. He's a fortysomething who has let things drift and doesn't really understand why things aren't so good any more. Joyce pins down the "British Bloke" perfectly in the pages of this novel. Danny has acquaintances he sometimes likes and sometimes doesn't, one of whom he doesn't even realize is his best friend. He uses games like snooker and pub quizzes as a substitute for really socializing -- he goes out with people and yet they always have Things To Do (pot the ball, answer the question) which stop them from having to communicate with each other.

In Danny Innes, Joyce provides a wonderfully engaging portrait of a man trying to connect: with a daughter who has become a woman; with a son who has Found God; with a younger generation altogether; with a world that is just a little beyond his grasp. As if that weren't enough, Charlie's plight throws Danny into a world far removed from the one he knows: a journey to urban Thailand at first, and then into the opium-growing heart of the country, a land of jungle, armed gangs and strange local beliefs. If Danny can't really cope with his own world, how on earth will he manage here?

Is this genre fiction, you may be wondering, or has Joyce moved into the mainstream ghetto? There are demons in this book, evil spirits that stalk Danny on his quest; but they are subtle demons, and could easily be the demons in our heads, the ones that stalk us all. Genre or not, the answer really shouldn't matter, of course: Smoking Poppy is a quest novel in the best possible sense of the description -- the story of a man's quest to know himself, a quest that takes him halfway around the world but which also takes him far greater distances within his own head. It is a fine piece of work.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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