Tag Archives: superstition

Book Review: Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Doubleday; 352 pages; $24.95).


            Magic and superstition govern some places like gravity presides over the universe.  Without one, the other would not exist.  Take the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge, for example.  Many scholars view it as an ancient burial ground, yet myths and Druidic folklore surround the spot, alluding to Stonehenge as a calendar or site of ancestor worship.  Take the house where Lord Voldemort murdered Harry Potter’s parents and tried to do the same thing to Harry.  This might be a fictional example, but it is significant.  The house, even years after the incident, was marked by what it had witnessed.  That is some strong gris-gris.


The same is true for a wooded area in central England in Graham Joyce’s novel Some Kind of Fairy Tale.  Locals are wary of the place they call the “Outwoods.”  “All I’m saying is that you wouldn’t get me to walk up there.  No.  Wouldn’t go near the place,” one says.  “There are powers.”  “That place lies on a fault,” they say.


Twenty years ago, a teenage girl disappeared in the “enchanted” woods.  Local authorities never solved the case and cast blame on the girl’s boyfriend, who staunchly maintained his innocence.


Then, out of the blue, Tara, the missing girl, shows up on her parents’ doorstep.  Her brother, Peter, is summoned.  The news throws him for a loop.  He, more than anyone else, is determined to solve the mystery: Where has Tara been and what happened to her?


It will not be easy.  The main problem is Tara herself.  She is supposed to be 36 years old but could pass for a young woman of 20.  Light hurts her eyes so she constantly wears dark glasses.  She smells of patchouli oil and wears hippie-type clothing.  When asked where she has been all this time, Tara initially tells her family that she has traveled all around the world.  That explanation does not sit well with any of them.  Finally, Tara tells Peter the truth, or at least her version of it.


She met a man, a fairy, in the “Outwoods,” who took her to his home.  Hiero (pronounced “Yarrow”) beguiled and bedeviled her.  She spent six months with him and came home as soon as she could.  However, six months in his world was actually twenty years in the real world.  Is Tara crazy?  Where has she been really?  What is truth and what is fantasy?


Tara insists on the veracity of her story.  “There is a veil to this world, thin as smoke, and it draws back occasionally and when it does we can see incredible things,” she confesses.  Her old boyfriend, Richie, asks the question we would ask her if we could: “Are you doped?  Are you damaged?  Are you just playing?”


Peter and his wife urge Tara to see a doctor.  Her sessions with Dr. Vivian Underwood are among Joyce’s best and most compelling passages.  He uncovers holes in Tara’s story and offers an alternative explanation for her disappearance and what has happened to her.  His take on Tara is fascinating.


Joyce reveals that Tara is not the only person in her small town to supposedly have been stolen away by fairies.  A similar thing happened to Peter’s neighbor, Mrs. Larwood.  In the 1950s, when she told people her story, everyone thought she was insane.  Her doctor gave her electric shock treatments.  Her account is eerily similar to Tara’s.  Are they both lying?


In a brilliant subplot, Peter’s son, Jack, mistakenly kills Mrs. Larwood’s cat.  A guilty Jack sets out to put flyers around the neighborhood to assuage his culpability.  An idea forms in his head.  He will dig up the dead cat he buried, take the cat’s collar, and then find a substitute cat from a local shelter.  He will merely replace the dead cat with one that resembles Mrs. Larwood’s deceased pet.  Her eyesight is bad, Jack thinks, so maybe she will not notice.


In Some Kind of Fairy Tale, the line between fantasy and reality is very thin.  If you have read any of Joyce’s previous work, then you know this is his forte.  The Silent Land is still my favorite of his novels.  In the book, a husband and wife get caught in an avalanche in the Alps.  Upon their return to their hotel, they find not a soul there.  In fact, the whole town is deserted, and they cannot make it past a certain point.  It is if an invisible barrier holds them back.  It is as if they are the only two people left in the world.  Joyce is well-known for producing psychological thrillers.  He knows how to keep readers guessing and how to keep them reading.


Joyce also knows the impact that shifting perspectives have on the reader.  He alternates between third and first person in telling the story.  This technique is especially powerful when Tara tells us herself of her experience.  Speaking in the first-person, Tara describes her ordeal and we listen, rapt, as she gives us an intimate account.  Joyce also does this with Richie to show his inner-most feeling and how he is coping with Tara’s return.  Her re-appearance brings big changes, some welcome but some unwelcome to Richie’s life.


Unlike The Silent Land, Joyce grounds Some Kind of Fairy Tale in history and folklore.  In Great Britain and in Ireland, many people believe in “changelings.”  A changeling is a spirit or fairy who is substituted for a loved one; the changeling takes the place of the real person.  Joyce prefaces his chapters with quotes, rhymes, and poems about fairies.  Bridget Cleary’s story, though, affects me the most.

In 1895, Bridget and Michael Clearly lived in Tipperary, Ireland.  Bridget, a seamstress, fell ill.  Michael, a cooper, did not believe the sick woman in his bed was his wife.  Close friends concurred with Michael.  They believed a changeling had taken the place of Bridget and they had to somehow force the spirit to leave Bridget’s body.  Michael and the others set Bridget on fire and threw urine on her.  She died.  The killers were put on trial and served only a small amount of time in jail.  The murder inspired a children’s rhyme:


“Are you a witch?

Are you a fairy?

Are you the wife

Of Michael Cleary?”

—Children’s rhyme from Southern Tipperary, Ireland


Bridget’s story and other quotes Joyce uses in the book illuminate how superstitious some people really are, despite the fact we live in 2012.  Tara may be kooky.  But if she’s simply crazy, why does such stigma surround the Outwoods?  And who is the mysterious man who keeps beating Richie up?  Do his painful migraines have anything to do with Tara’s return?  And just who is the man Peter finds talking to his teenage daughter?  The man who high-steps it once he sees Peter?


Joyce answers many of these questions in Some Kind of Fairy Tale, but others remain a mystery.  Some Kind of Fairy Tale might be too fanciful for some.  The same goes for those who like their stories to end neatly and decisively.  But if you long for a good yarn, Joyce’s tale will surely enchant you and make you wonder about the hold some places have over us all.




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The Author Who Lost Her Way

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny (Little, Brown and Company; 336 pages; $25.99)


Life in sixteenth-century Venetia is becoming tenuous, at least for women doctors, in Regina O’Melveny’s uneven historical novel The Book of Madness and Cures.  There are very few of them, and many look at them with contempt.  Perhaps those who most scorn these physicians are male doctors.  The true reason behind their disdain is the simple fact that they feel threatened by these women.

Such is the case for Dr. Gabriella Mondini.  The medical guild has expelled her from their membership.  You see, a female doctor must have a male mentor to vouch for her, restrain her, and stay those womanly impulses (can you feel my sarcasm?)  Gabriella treats female patients who are more comfortable being looked at by a woman.  She is very good at what she does.  She learned medicine from her father.

Dr. E.B. Mondini, though, is AWOL.  He left Venetia ten years before the story begins to work on his magnum opus, The Book of Diseases.  Gabriella’s father has roamed around Europe all this time.  He writes home infrequently.  His letters are undated and grow increasingly stranger and stranger over time.  It seems very unlikely that Gabriella’s father will ever return.

His long absence becomes problematic for Gabriella only when it affects her professionally.  His weird letters do not raise red flags for Gabriella for ten years.  But one day, the guild comes to her and says she is no longer allowed to practice.  This is a crushing blow to her.

The edict is especially hard because Gabriella loves treating patients and is quite a student of medicine.  She never stops learning and is always eager to hear of illnesses and cures.  Gabriella, though, is unmarried, a fact her mother laments often: “Bear children.  Why not marry a good doctor?  Why must you be one?”  (Yes, I laughed when I read it, too.) Medicine is Gabriella’s spouse ever since the love of her life died from plague several years ago.  Medicine has been a salve for her broken heart.

Now medicine is lost to her.  She zeroes in only then on her father.  If she can find him and bring him home, she will be readmitted to the Guild.  Gabriella is only interested in what he can do for her.  Her anger over his disappearance is palpable, and it has been two years since his last letter.

Her life in Venetia “is a prison.”  This stunning revelation is all the impetus she needs.  “I can no longer practice medicine there, and my father’s last letter proved a fine gadfly, stinging me to change things as they are,” Gabriella reveals.  So she decides to go look for her father.  Accompanied by two trustworthy servants, she will travel to the places from which her father posted his letters and will stay with his colleagues in those towns and villages.  She then sets off on a quest to find him, but her journey is nothing Joseph Campbell would appreciate.  However, I do not fault Gabriella.

The real fault lies with O’Melveny.  There is so much early promise in The Book of Madness and Cures.  Gabriella is a character who defies convention.  O’Melveny’s character development of Gabriella is initially strong but falters in the middle and then eventually weakens in the end.  I do not buy that such an original, unconventional woman would have a baby and marry in the end.  O’Melveny must be championing Gabriella as an early pioneer of the feminist movement when she gives her choices.  Yet, in all actuality, women during this time did not have the choices Gabriella’s character has.

The real problem with this novel is the plot.  Obstacles delay Gabriella’s journey at every turn.  I do not buy this.  O’Melveny seeks to draw out the story, but her tactic is tiresome.  I understand that she must stall or she would have no book.  However, O’Melveny forgets the premise for the tale: to find Dr. Mondini.  Instead, Gabriella and her servants gallivant around Europe.  Their meanderings give O’Melveny the opportunity to tell you every single thing she can find about whichever place her characters are at the time.  Her writing is distracted and awkward in these instances.

History is good, especially since this is historical fiction.  I love two things O’Melveny does in her novel, and both involve history.  The first is illuminating how dangerous travel for a woman was in some European countries in the sixteenth century.  A village through which Gabriella and her servants travel has no women.  A man explains the church rounded all of the women up on suspicion of witchcraft.  This was a common charge against women during this era and a nice addition to the story.  Gabriella fears for her life, she is a woman and a doctor after all, so she cuts her hair and dresses like a man.  I told you she defies convention.  Too bad O’Melveny does not stick with this.

The second thing O’Melveny does that I love is she portrays how much of sixteenth-century Europe was a place in between eras.  Many people, peasants in particular, still believed in the old medieval superstitions.  Magic and potions ruled the day.  The great Italian cities might be enjoying a Renaissance in art, music, architecture, and politics, but the common people knew little of this.  They were still stuck in the past.  The Age of Reason and the science of medicine were just beginning.  O’Melveny shines in these passages.  For example, merchants and businessmen were becoming part of the middle class but many lacked proper manners.  O’Melveny shows how some used their forks as weapons while dining.  Tongues wagged over “who forked whom.”  Passages which highlighted the above are brilliant but, sadly, few.

Indeed, the sad and frustrated reader will want more.  Especially where it concerns the missing Dr. Mondini.  O’Melveny alludes to an illness, the “family madness,” that he may or may not have.  She suggests he is a lunatic and that the phases of the moon affect him.  At times, I worry he will howl at the moon or something.  His malady is just too vague.  When Gabriella finds her father’s glasses and shoes that he left behind, the mystery only deepens.  More explanation is needed.  The same is true for the murder of Wilhelm Lochner, a man who Gabriella meets on her journey.  These are threads O’Melveny leaves hanging.

I cannot recommend The Book of Madness and Cures.  O’Melveny loses her way in this novel and the plot suffers.  The characters suffer.  However, there is no reason for you, dear reader, to endure this painful read.  If this time period interests you, try Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan.

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