There is a familiar trope in fiction of the unreliable narrator. Can what we read actually be true? Is it in their head, or did it really happen? Joyce takes this idea and with his usual skewed-just-to-the-side-of-reality imagination, twists it a tad. While most of Some Kind of Fairy Tale is told from a mystery third person narration, it also includes first person perspective from Tara, who disappeared in the Outwoods twenty years ago, and turns up at her broken parents’ house on Christmas Day, with a tale truly too unbelievable.
While the novel is almost a revisionist take on what fairy tales are and mean, it is also a study of modern middle class family life, the death of childhood and the loss of ideologies as the real world, as life, takes over. When Tara turns up at her parents, looking suspiciously like a teenager, she claims she’s been living in some kind of commune for six months. She reveals her story throughout the book in a flashback structure, intercutting the main thrust of the novel. The repercussions of her story are examined through the thoughts and actions of her brother and his family, her boyfriend at the time she disappeared (who was her brother’s best friend and was subsequently under suspicion in relation to her disappearance) and the psychiatrist she agrees to see to try to locate the missing 19 ½ years. The latter’s thoughts are recorded as his official notes from their sessions, while the former are both again, first person accounts.
Sounds messy? At least four different first person perspectives. The third person narration. And add to that a seemingly out-of-place story of Tara’s nephew Jack, a cat, and an elderly neighbour, and one might think that there’s no way this book can work. However, Joyce treats the fairy tale idea with respect. Tara defends her story by claiming that she never calls the people she spent time with fairies. Others put that label on them. Each chapter has a relevant quote from the likes of Yeats, Einstein, Carter, Le Guinn, Shakespeare and more. His prose, as always, is beautifully effortless. Eloquent and elegant. He makes the complex appear simple. The shifts in perspective don’t jar at all. He proves there is magic in words, while suggesting there might be magic deep in the woods. The characters populating this tale are mostly well-rounded and representative of the modern world: the failed musician, the downsized family, the old woman struggling with new technology. There are short passages of relative blandness, reflecting the issues people deal with today. The passages in the other place, where the ‘fairy’ live, are evocative and feel original. The only issue I have is Tara’s parents. The beginning of the book features them heavily, but they are then almost brushed aside for the family and the ex-boyfriend.
For me, the payoff works. Evidence presents itself and it becomes clear that one side or the other is true. Even Jack’s tale makes sense. There is no hedging of bets, despite whatever the characters all finally believe. Tara is left with a single choice, which she takes. It made perfect sense to me. This is a different kind of fairy tale, all about perceptions and growing up and leaving no doubt, one way or another. Joyce at his brilliant best.