Monday, 13 September 2021

The Year Of The Ladybird, by Graham Joyce

In another edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I love.  This review originally appeared on the blog in 2013 but, following a long overdue re-read, I feel the need to - once again - let as many people know about it as possible.  Back then, Graham was still with us but as that's sadly no longer the case, I've included a biography of the wonderful writer and thoroughly nice bloke.  
A ghost story with a difference from the WORLD FANTASY and multiple BRITISH FANTASY AWARD-winning author of SOME KIND OF FAIRY TALE.

It is the summer of 1976, the hottest since records began and a young man leaves behind his student days and learns how to grow up. A first job in a holiday camp beckons. But with political and racial tensions simmering under the cloudless summer skies there is not much fun to be had.

And soon there is a terrible price to be paid for his new-found freedom and independence. A price that will come back to haunt him, even in the bright sunlight of summer.

As with SOME KIND OF FAIRY TALE, Graham Joyce has crafted a deceptively simple tale of great power. With beautiful prose, wonderful characters and a perfect evocation of time and place, this is a novel that transcends the boundaries between the everyday and the supernatural while celebrating the power of both.

David Barwise is a 19 year old student who, against the better wishes of his Mum and step-dad, gets a summer job as a greencoat on a holiday camp in Skegness.  Set against the scorching summer of 1976 - and the subsequent ladybird invasion - David is led into two love affairs, one with the wife of an apparent monster, one with a lovely Yorkshire lass, as he tries to find his feet amongst the staff of the camp - some theatrical, some racist, some thuggish and some genuinely nice - and the ever present punters, adults and child alike.  He is not only there to escape from home, he’s also trying to find details about his long-since-dead father, the only photograph of whom shows him on a Skegness beach.  And then, in between getting caught up in the rise of the National Front, he begins to see ghosts on the beach and on the camp, of a suited man and his young charge.  

This is a glorious novel, full of wit and invention (and a nice line in dry humour) that is told is a deceptively simple style.  Perfectly capturing both the 1976 summer and the start of the slow decline of the east coast seaside resort, this crackles with energy and pathos.  The characterisation - David narrates the story - is pitch perfect, often delivered with the lightest of touches - Pinky and the way he dresses, Tony and his exuberance, Colin and his chilling demeanour - but always spot on and always human, with none of the characters ever behaving in a way that seems out of place.  David is first drawn into the web of Colin, a thuggish and boorish man, and his wife Terri, who sings like an angel but is apparently abused into submission at home.  Attracted to her, the relationship between him and his older, secret lover, is fantastically played with neither David or the reader quite sure of what’s going on.  A surer, safer bet is Nikki, a beautiful half-caste dancer, painfully aware of her own shortcomings (which aren’t really, to David or the reader) and it’s this relationship that we want to see work, the coupling that makes this the perfect coming-of-age novel.  

Because that’s what this is, at the end of the day.  It’s a social and political observation - the holiday camp, the members of the National Front and what it’ll mean to people like Nikki (and how she reacts, when she realises David has been duped into attending a meeting, a stigma that remains with him for the bulk of the novel) - but it’s also about spreading your wings, finding love (the first erotic interlude, with David and Nikki, is wonderfully erotic whilst being almost mundane) and loss and setting out onto the path of adulthood.  

There are supernatural elements - and the denouement of that particular plot strand is obvious but also heartbreakingly beautiful - but this isn’t a supernatural novel, it’s not a horror novel, it is instead a perfect drama about a young man, finding his way in 1970s Britain.  

It speaks to me on a couple of levels, in that I love coming-of-age stories and the east coast seaside (and follows my reading of the similarly themed (in terms of nostalgia and love) “Joyland”), but also because I was seven in 1976 and my family holidayed in Ingoldmells, a few miles north of Skegness and it’s a town that I still visit on occasion today.  

A truly beautiful work of art (that had me in tears towards the end), populated with characters that I grew to love (and I so desperately want to know that the central love story carried on beyond the seventies), this is an incredible read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.



Graham Joyce was born the mining village of Kerseley, near Coventry, on 22nd October 1954, where he grew up.  He obtained his bachelor’s degree in education at Bishop Lonsdale college, an MA in English and American Literature at the University of Leicester and in 2004 was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University.

In 1988, he quit his job and went to live on the Greek island of Lesbos, to concentrate on writing.  His first novel, Dreamside, funded travel to the Middle East and he went on to write fourteen novels, five young adult novels, and an autobiographical book about his experiences as goalie for the England Writers' football team (which, by the way, is excellent).  He also wrote numerous short stories.

Over his career, he won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel five times, the World Fantasy Award , the French Grand Prix De L'Imaginaire twice and the prestigious O Henry award for his short story An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen. In 2008 he was awarded the Honorary degree of Master of Letters by the University of Derby.

He continued to write and teach creative writing at Nottingham Trent University until his death on 9th September 2014.

Biography from the Graham Joyce website

I was lucky to meet him on several occasions and we got to know each other well enough we'd chat and share a laugh whenever we were in the same place (usually at FantasyCon).  I saw him at WFC (he was heading downstairs, I was heading up, he said "Hello mate!" and changed direction so we could walk and talk for a while) in Brighton and got to tell him how much this novel meant to me and he seemed genuinely moved when I told him it made me cry.  However, when I asked him if he was going to write a short story, detailing the love affair after the novels end, he told me to bugger off!  

I miss his presence and his writing.