1976 was dubbed the ‘Year of the Ladybird’ because the lengthy, dry days and drought-like conditions brought about plague like conditions across the UK – ladybird swarmed across the country. By the end of September 1976, there had been a 16-week dry spell – the longest recorded over England and Wales since 1727 (according to the Met Office). Joyce fictionalises his memories of that summer (when he did indeed work in a holiday camp) by introducing us to David. He’s a student who takes a job as a Greencoat at a summer camp in Skegness, after finding a photo of his deceased father with just that word – Skegness – scrawled across its back. The other key ingredient to that scorching season was an increased political tension which saw the rise (briefly) of the National Front.
David gets off on the wrong foot when he takes his lunch in the staff canteen, sitting with (soon to be revealed NF member) Colin and his wife Terri. Before long, David becomes an accepted, able and popular member of the troop, which features singer Luca, magician Tony, dancer Nikki and all-round slacker Nobby, amongst others. However, that first day leads him to a doomed relationship with Terri, being drafted in to a NF meeting with Colin and his cohorts and the dumping of illegal spoiled meat in a disused mine-shaft. With all this going on, David and Nikki fall for each other and David’s mother and step-father are becoming increasingly worried about his behaviour. But what of the ghosts? Well, David is haunted by his dead father, but only in his head, while he thinks he is hallucinating images of a man in a blue suit accompanied by a young boy.
One of the main skills of Joyce is to draw you into a story that is very different to the one you expect to read when you pick up a copy of The Year of the Ladybird. I was expecting David to be a likeable character who falls in love with Nikki but has some trauma concerning ghosts that, perhaps, threatens their relationship. Nothing could be further from that idea. The tale is mostly about David’s perceptions of events of that summer, from his affair with Terri, the plague of ladybirds and the discovery of the truth about his dad. I didn’t like David as a character. He even describes himself as a moral coward, and I couldn’t agree more. While Nikki is clearly the sensible and desirable option, he risks everything – including his life – to spend time with Terri. But when he gets himself into dumb situations, you emphasis with him. You feel nervous and tense. I had a real, physical, uncomfortable feeling in my gut whenever I thought he was about to be rumbled. Which shows the power of Joyce’s writing.
Despite the fact that you can feel the oppressive nature of the atmosphere and you can almost feel the brightness of the summer on your face as you read the novel, it does have a noir-ish feel to it, as opposed to a traditional ghost story feel. A small and insignificant decision (where to sit in the canteen on his first day) leads to David’s life spiralling out of control, taking him in directions he’s not prepared for and distracting him from his goal of finding out about his father. It even has, it turns out, a femme fatale in the guise of Terri, whom almost brings about his self-destruction.
As always with Joyce, the prose and the dialogue feel just right. His descriptions of the ladybird plague are almost poetic. His hints at the supernatural are just enough (is the man in the blue suit a ghost?) and perfectly timed so as not to forget where the story is taking us. Mesmeric, hazy, charming and just a little nostalgic (for the older reader), this is a gem of a story by an author at the top of the ‘is it, isn’t it’ game. Graham Joyce writes a beautifully simple narrative which begs to be read slowly. It is a short but brilliant novel. Like a fine meal, take your time over it.