Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Joyce Girl || Annabel Abbs

It often takes me some time to get into historical fiction based on real people (I've read somewhere that this genre is called 'faction'). I have to make sure I set aside the things I know, or think I know, to really give myself to the story. This process was easy with The Joyce Girl for two reasons:

1. I'm fairly unfamiliar with Joyce and Beckett. I've read their work, but never looked into their lives.

2. The Joyce Girl is written so well that from the word go I was there in Lucia's head, in 1920s Paris,  and there was absolutely no way my mind could wander from that world.

'1928: Avant-garde Paris is buzzing with the latest ideas in art, music, literature and dance. Lucia, the talented and ambitious daughter of James Joyce, is making her name as a dancer, training with some of the world’s most gifted performers. When a young Samuel Beckett comes to work for her father, she’s captivated by his quiet intensity and falls passionately in love. Persuaded she has clairvoyant powers, Lucia believes her destiny is to marry Beckett. But when her beloved brother is enticed away, the hidden threads of the Joyces’ lives begin to unravel, destroying Lucia’s dreams and foiling her attempts to escape the shadow of her genius father.

1934: Her life in tatters, Lucia is sent by her father to pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung. For years she has kept quiet. But now she decides to speak.'

The relationship between Joyce and Lucia portrayed in this novel made my skin crawl. His labelling of her as his muse is the ultimate method of control: shackles seeped in false flattery. His constant calls for her to dance for him made me feel quite uncomfortable and yet it's when she's dancing that Lucia feels most alive.

'I could feel the muscles in my legs burning and the perspiration rising on my lip. And yet I loved this feeling, the tautness and control, the sense of every muscle at its perfect pitch, the way my teeming brain stilled in the effort.'

Abbs has brought Lucia to life with very little source material to go on. The majority of Lucia's letters, papers and even the patient notes from her sessions with Carl Jung were destroyed, but Abbs pieces her life together wonderfully and incorporates what source material is left - such as the review of her dancing in a Parisian paper - into the text. 

As I read The Joyce Girl I was reminded of Zelda Fitzgerald and her novel, Save Me the Waltz. There are many parallels between Lucia and Zelda and I was pleased to come across Zelda in the text. Zelda's breakdown and stay in an asylum foreshadows Lucia's own and adds extra depth to the commentary on mental health that is wound into the novel.

As with Fitzgerald's autobiographical novel, questions of identity - as a dancer, as a woman, as a daughter - are at the forefront of The Joyce Girl. Lucia is constantly struggling to find her place in the world and each time she comes close, most frequently when dancing, she's pulled back by one of the many controlling men in her life. She's shaped by the men around her, rather than by herself. I felt this added a tinge of sadness and poignancy to a novel which is otherwise so alive with energy. Not that that is a bad thing. On the contrary, Abbs skilfully handles the polarity of emotions and paints a stunningly real portrait of a woman trying to forge her way through a life which is dictated by her father, her brother and by Beckett. 

'And it struck me that being in love with Beckett was not dissimilar to dancing - the breathless sense of invincibility, the feeling of time and space falling away.'

Enthralled is a pretty good word to describe my reaction to this novel. It captured my imagination with its charm and energy and, immediately upon finishing, I was googling Lucia Joyce to find out more. I often wondered how much of the novel is fiction and how much is fact and I found myself forgetting it is a novel at all. Abbs creates a world and a woman so vivid and full of life that it's easy to believe that Abbs's Lucia is Joyce's Lucia. 

The Joyce Girl is truly an impressive debut (no wonder it won the Impress Prize for New Writers), and one I would urge you to read. 

The Joyce Girl blog tour is running until Monday 27th June. I'd highly recommend visiting the other stops on this tour as the reviews and guest posts are fab and well worth a read.

FYI, if you were as yet unsure about buying this fantastic novel, the profits from the first year of sales are being donated to YoungMinds in memory of Lucia Joyce, which is a wonderful way of commemorating and celebrating her life.

Thank you to all at Impress Books for inviting me on this tour and providing a copy of the novel for review.

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