This book was recommended to me by r/books, after I stated my preference for fantasy set in the real world. Though this book would be more accurately described as historical fantasy, I also happen to be a fan of historical fiction, so win-win, right?
The main premise of this novel is that a young boy, Frank, is born during World War II near the town of Coventry, England. The story tells of his life as he grows up under the care of his mother, Cassie Vine, and his six aunts, each of them taking turns to care for him, as he was born out of wedlock and his father presumably dies in the war. This review will consider the three main elements of any worthwhile story: plot, characters, and narrative.
Martha Vine, Frank’s grandmother, and Cassie both have the ability to interact with the dead, to certain degrees. Martha can see and hear them, while Cassie can go a step further and converse and touch them as well. Frank inherits this ability, and though this is not a horror novel by any means, this special power lands Frank in just a little bit of trouble. Really, just a little bit.
Unfortunately, the plot is the greatest weakness of this novel. It’s not that the premise is boring; the problem is that it never feels significant to any of the novel’s events. Things happen, but there’s never any sense of danger or consequence. When I first read the synopsis, I imagined that each sister would provide an interesting scenario for Frank before he moved on to the next aunt. That sounded fun, like a collection of short stories that may or may not come together into an overarching theme. While it is true that each house puts Frank in a unique and engaging situation, they don’t seem to connect with one another, nor do they appear to impact him in any way.
Evelyn and Ina are twins who believe in spiritualism but lack their mother’s and youngest sister’s talents. They end up inviting a false spiritualist from their church, and Frank makes a couple of friends at school, and that’s it. With Beatie he is almost molested by a pedophile, but a lucky coincidence saves him, and Beatie runs for city council. At Aida’s house Frank may or may not have accidentally brought a dead man back to life, but the man merely goes home and it is chalked up to a mistake on the doctor’s behalf. All of these events are independent of one another, and they don’t inform Frank’s behaviour or perspective in any way.
By the midway point of the novel, I wasn’t sure what the book was about. It felt like I was just reading about things happening, and it was unclear what the main event was.
If the novel is simply a story about a boy living with various aunts, then why does it spend so much time on Cassie and the Coventry Blitz? If the novel wants to focus on the historical aspect, then there was no reason to get into Evelyn’s and Ina’s spiritualism, William’s affair, the man-behind-the-grass, and so on. Perhaps the novel is meant to be a collage, an odd mixture of historical fiction and fantasy, but the problem remains the same: none of the individual stories matter, nor do they come together into a greater whole. Every time Frank stays with an aunt, something interesting happens, but then it ends abruptly, with no connection to what comes before or after. In fact, Cassie’s story feels more significant, because her character actually changes by the end of the book, but it has nothing to do with Frank directly, and making her the protagonist would further obscure the book’s purpose.
Thus, I think Joyce’s mistake was that he was either indecisive about what kind of book he wanted The Facts of Life to be, or he tried to say too many things at once. The “man-behind-the-grass” plot point was especially confusing and ultimately disappointing, as it comes out of nowhere, and it turns out to have very little impact on the story, much like everything else. Yes, he is the one that causes Frank to steal the bell and plate, but this feels so trivial, and it really only affects a side character (Raggedy Anne).
This story has no main antagonist, no real source of conflict, and because of that there is minimal character growth. That is why the plot feels nonexistent; at the end Frank is still the same innocent boy he was in the beginning. In order to engage readers with a plot, things need to change. Altering the setting isn’t enough. There needs to be permanent change imposed upon the characters, and this book fails to do so.
That isn’t to say that the characters themselves aren’t interesting already. Martha Vine is charismatic and sympathetic. She is the wise matriarch and her presence on the page is often accompanied by a sense of order and safety, which is a magnificent accomplishment on Joyce’s part. Each of her daughters are interesting and possess unique quirks, and they all have their own backstory going on simultaneously with the main narrative.
The most interesting sister is, of course, Cassie, who is the youngest and thereby fated to be the spoiled brat. But despite her promiscuous and air-headed nature, she has a good heart and genuinely tries to be a good mother, and that is what makes her interesting; she has faults, but she tries to do good. Both Martha and Cassie were the two primary reasons I kept on reading.
Another thing Joyce did well was portray the family as a whole. There are squabbles contrasted with moments of tender affection, and that is what family is all about. Cramming so many characters with distinct personalities is difficult, but Joyce does it with grace. One thing I felt cheated on was the fact that Olive never takes care of Frank, even though the story promises in the beginning that each sister would get a turn.
What this goes to show is that character and plot can be independent of one another. I maintain that a good plot will mould and transform its characters, but in this case, even when that doesn’t happen, the characters themselves can still be interesting. However, it is also true that the two most interesting characters (Martha and Cassie) are different by the end of the book then they are in the beginning, though the change is slight.
This is Joyce’s greatest strength. In this novel he demonstrates effectively his ability to paint using words. Two of the most beautiful scenes in this book occur in the same chapter, during the blitz. The first is when Cassie is running around delivering messages, and she arrives in the basement of a communications headquarters, and everyone can hear the destruction of their city up above, but before she leaves with her next message she tells them that they’re going to win this in the end, because she “just knows it.” The crowd is silent for a moment, but then they break into smiles and one man kisses her on the cheek, calling her a beauty. That was a great moment that conveyed hope and humanity, two complex ideas delivered by what is supposed to be the most ditzy character in the story with just one line! The second beautiful moment is when Cassie decides to take down a German bomber, by literally using a ghost to fly onto one and causing it to malfunction and crash. When she decides to do it, and the description used to portray how it’s done, I won’t repeat here, but it was a really good moment in the story.
The reason I’ve described these two events is to hopefully remind you (if you’ve already read this book) about what Joyce can do with a scene, and what his idea of an emotional moment was. These were the two most memorable moments for me, but there are smaller, standalone paragraphs (and sentences) throughout that just simply make you appreciate the English language. I wouldn’t call it poetic, but Joyce has the ability to imbue scenes with overtones of certain emotions at the same time as he’s describing it, and I do not hesitate to call that talent.
For a lesson on how to write good descriptive narrative, Joyce is a great teacher.
I understand that The Facts of Life is considered to be Joyce’s best novel by professional critics, primarily because it’s the closest one to being a “literary work,” in that it contains historical events and seems to say something about it. However, I’m not convinced this was the core issue Joyce was dealing with. This again goes back to the fact that the Blitz only initiates the starting point of the plot, the birth of Frank, but it doesn’t really have any other consequence.
Yes, it causes William to sleep with his war buddy’s wife, and it produces more dead bodies for Gordon to take care of, but these events in turn don’t seem to matter. Life goes back to the way it used to be. I think there was a missed opportunity here; if Joyce spent more time connecting the individual events to the Blitz, or adopt a stronger narrative that ties things together, then perhaps the story may have been more relevant.
As is, the best part about this story is the narrative. It is charming, simple, and subtle, and in that respect The Facts of Life is without a doubt an English piece of literature. A good bedtime read, especially if you enjoy reading about family relationships. That is perhaps the only basis I would recommend this novel on, since it falls short of being an effective historical and/or fantasy story either way.
This has been a gamobo review.
Featured image borrowed from here.