Review by Frank O’Shea
THE JOYCE GIRL. By Annabel Abbs. Hachette. 358 pp.
ISBN 978 0 7336 3697 4
RRP $32.99 eBook $12.99
The front cover pointedly labels this book ‘A Novel’. It is a necessary clarification because all the events it describes are based on facts that are found in biographies of its central characters. What we learn about James Joyce and his family, Samuel Beckett, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Isadora Duncan, Margaret Morris and other residents of the creative world of Paris in the late 1920s is no different from what you can read in biographies of those people or histories of that time.
The central character is Joyce’s daughter Lucia. Still in her early twenties, fluent in four languages, a singer and choreographer, she is earning a reputation as a dancer. One critic of the time wrote that James Joyce may yet be better known as Lucia’s father rather than as the literary genius whose Ulysses had dazzled the world.
In the years in which the book is set, Joyce is working on his great experimental novel Finnegans Wake, although it will not be published for another ten years. Almost blind, he needs Lucia as a kind of secretary and has various people visiting him daily to read to him and to type up the words he has scratched with a crayon to add to what he calls his Work in Progress. One of those who is acting in this capacity is the young Samuel Beckett with whom Lucia becomes infatuated.
Though her passion is not reciprocated, she is convinced that she will become Mrs Sam Beckett. When that dream is shattered, she persuades herself that she will become the wife of an American sculptor who is giving her art lessons. That hope is also dashed. At about the same time, she discovers that her brother Giorgio is having an affair with a wealthy Jewish woman. And to add to her mental state, she discovers that her parents were not married and that she and Giorgio are, in the word of that time, bastards.
The core of the story is the way that these events lead to a gradual disintegration in Lucia’s mental state. The novel cuts periodically to interviews she had some years later while being treated by psychoanalyst Carl Jung. He is particularly interested in the causes of her strained relationship with her mother Nora and her closer bond with her father who calls her his muse. Indeed the book could be read as a salutary account of a dysfunctional family inside a happy marriage.
There are no real villains in the story. James Joyce is the
Great Author who can break the rules of fiction, but not of etiquette.
He comes across as selfish and self-centred, but also kindly and a peacemaker. Giorgio is a young man, not quite making it as an opera singer, who takes a wealthy mistress, much older than he is, as a way out of poverty. It is his insistence that their child will be called Joyce that has his parents going to London to be belatedly married.
Nora is the least satisfactory character in the narrative. While her way of speaking may be accurate, she introduces an element of stage Irishry that is at odds with the other characters. Here, by way of an example, she is preparing to go out to dinner.
Lucia! What on earth’s wrong with you? Aren’t you hearing me? I might as well be talking to meself. Sure I’ve decided to wear the black hat. I think it goes better with me coat.
Terms like nonfiction novel or creative non-fiction have been used for this kind of book. It is best read as an examination of slow descent into insanity, made all the sadder for the understanding that Lucia is an intelligent and talented young woman whose problems are caused by people who love her and wish her well. And as an extra, you will learn a great deal about James Joyce and his post-Dublin life.
Frank O’Shea is a regular contributor to Tinteán and a member of the Tinteán Editorial Team.