THE FACTS OF LIFE
by Graham Joyce
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Graham Joyce's The Facts of Life tells the story of a typical family in Coventry, England following World War II, set apart because, while typical, they are also atypical. The Vine family, which forms the focal point of Joyce’s novel, is comprised of Martha Vine, her seven daughters and their respective spouses. Joyce uses the appearance of Frank, an illegitimate child of Martha’s youngest daughter, Cassie, to move his novel, which is essentially without plot, along.
The vast size of the Vine clan allows Joyce to depict a microcosm of the post war period. Aida and Gordon aspire to a higher social status while Una and Tom are happy on their farm in the country. Olive and William are undergoing the strains of middle class living while Beatrice experiments with socialist communes at Oxford. Evelyn and Ina have turned to spiritualism for answers, in part, perhaps because Martha seems to have a tie to the fey. Finally, Cassie is lost in a society in transition and needs as much protection, if not more, than her son. While the Vine sisters are all representative of the new world emerging from World War II, Martha is a throw back to the wise old woman of the countryside, despite living in the heart of Coventry.
What makes The Facts of Life work as well as it does is the fact that while Joyce eschews plot, he more than makes up for it with atmosphere and characterization. The Vine sisters (and their spouses) are shown as real people with their strengths and foibles. Their lives are in a constant state of flux, not least caused by the decision for the family to shuffle Frank around to give him the best upbringing possible for the family. Moments of high emotion, such as the spat between Aida and Olive which threatens to rupture the family, are punctuated by absurdity, like the ghost of Lady Godiva. Even as conflicts get resolved, other conflicts brew and, while the lives of the sisters are left open ended when the book is done, there is a satisfying conclusion of sorts.
Joyce’s writing is so firmly grounded in the real world, and the post war Coventry he describes is so realistic, that when something inexplicable does occur, it jolts the reader out of complacency and effectively brings home the strangeness of the situation in a manner which most fantasy novels cannot capture. Nevertheless, the intrusion of the other into The Facts of Life is neither unwarranted nor untelegraphed. Despite the supernatural agency which appears to be at work, it is woven into the novel in a manner which is completely natural.
The Facts of Life is an historical novel which is entirely self contained. While the events of the war and the subsequent years effect the Vine family, little of their interaction with the population beyond their family, and none with historical figures, is described. Despite this, The Facts of Life manages to successfully convey the sense of this people in recent British history.
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