Almost forty years on, the scorching summer of 1976 is remembered by many; however the relative tenor of the tale depends upon the perspective of the teller, very much in the mode of local legend. Some speak of it as a bastion of all that is great about Britain . . . or all that was, once. Others recall the summer as a season of suffering; of water shortages, hellish heat, economic depression, and—what with the National Front nearing the peak of its power—political volatility.
Each of these ideas has a part to play in Graham Joyce's new novel, but like the infamous insect invasion The Year of the Ladybird takes its evocative title from, they're in the background, by and large, adding if not narrative impact then immersive depth and telling texture to the text's redolent setting: a ramshackle holiday resort in a nation coming of age just as our protagonist David Barwise does over the course of this slight but delightful ghost story.
It was . . . the hottest summer in living memory. The reservoirs were cracked and dry; some of the towns were restricted to water from standpipes; crops were failing in the fields. England was a country innocent of all such extremity. I was nineteen and I’d just finished my first year at college.
Broke and with time on my hands I needed a summer job. Looking for a way out from the plans my stepdad had made for me, I got an interview at a holiday camp on the East Coast. Skegness, celebrated for that jolly fisherman in gumboots and sou’wester gamely making headway against a seaward gale: It's so bracing! (p. 1)
Not in the summer of 1976 it isn't. Happily, David hasn't come to Skegness for the brisk sea breeze. Indeed, he's hightailed it here for a pair of personal reasons. In the first, he hopes to find himself on his own terms, and in the process somehow sidestep his stepdad's dearest desire that David take his predetermined place in the family building business. "In a sense," as our persuasively self-aware narrator notes, "I had run away from all this; run away to sea, or at least to the seaside" (p. 38).
He rarely acknowledges his other aim, though Joyce makes it quite clear to the reader: he longs to become closer to his biological father. Sadly, his dad is dead. He passed away when David was three, in circumstances his parents are to this day tight-lipped about. All he has of his actual father, in fact, is a faded photograph stolen from a hidden tin box full of his mother's memories; a simple black and white picture of a muscular man in trunks, on the back of which the name of a certain coastal villa is scribbled.
In pursuit of these intangible ends, then, David secures a position of late vacated at the run-down resort set next to Skegness. He's to be a Greencoat—one of the holidaymaker-facing folks whose job it is to make the cheap breaks of the era fun for all the family—and this seems to please him. "I'd stuck in my thumb and pulled out a plum," (p. 2) as he puts it.
I was an Alice in Wonderland. It was a world I knew nothing of, hyper-real, inflated, one where the colours seemed brighter, vivid, intense. I was excited to be working there, being a part of it, but the truth is I felt anxious, too. It wasn't just about being an outsider, it was the strangeness of it all. Many of the staff I met were odd fish. I had a crazy idea that they all had large heads and small bodies, like caricature figures on an old-style cigarette card. (p. 13)
To be sure, it's not all tickety-boo in truth; a notion acknowledged by on one of David's new colleagues:
"The holiday camp is living on borrowed time, too. People don't want all of this any more."
By "all this" I knew she meant Abdul-Shazam, Luca Valletti and dancing girls rehearsing jaded routines in called-out Variety clubs. She meant the holidaying habits of the industrialised working classes. She meant a way of life that had reached the end of its commercial utility. These were the last days of working culture ended not through earthquake or tidal wave or volcanic eruption, but through the obstinate ticking of the cash register. (p. 109)
Despite his outsider's doubts, not to mention the nation's changing ways, David is a huge hit with the families who want one last hurrah of a holiday, and soon enough, the staff come around too—beginning, to our narrator's dismay, with the camp's most discomfiting couple.
It's not long before his inadvertent association with the connubial cleaners Colin and Terri comes back to bite him. Colin takes David, all diffidence initially, under his wing, inducting him into the National Front—or "the Panzer Division of the Skegness Reich" (p. 180), in the words of David's half-mad Mancunian roommate Nobby. Then, when Colin is suspended for threatening an entertainer who he suspects of trying it on with Terri, he asks David to keep an eye on his worryingly quiet wife, whose "beautiful brown eyes . . . seemed to be saying something else" (p. 9). Trouble is, David's already fallen for her.
But of course he has. For though The Year of the Ladybird purports to be a ghost story—and it is, after a fashion, albeit one which chronicles a haunting unlike any I've read of in recent memory—this description is at best deceptive. At heart, it's only nominally a supernatural novel. It's spooky sometimes, absolutely, and regularly suggestive, but the most unnerving moments develop from material evils as opposed to sinister, insubstantial spirits. Among a number of other problems particularly prevalent in the period it plays out in, the book boldly takes in bullying, abuse, race hate, and collective hysteria; topics the author tackles from a deferential distance whilst still engaging with them in a meaningful manner.
Be that as it may, The Year of the Ladybird is in the main the tender tale of David's coming of age at a pivotal point in British history. So there's some sex, yes, alongside a lot of awkwardness, lashings of angst, and a fair few loose ends. Yet it is in the nature of these fleeting years that many of our expectations terminate unexpectedly—as do many of our misgivings about this character and that over the course of this tense text.
Though the author rarely goes out of his way to elicit such suspicion, there is a certain sense that we should be second-guessing everything; that the success or failure of this trick depends upon our complicity in it, as with the illusions of the stage magician Abdul-Shazam—Tony to you and me—the tools of whose typically mystifying trade are laid bare in The Year of the Ladybird:
It was exciting to see the simple mechanisms at large, the false bottoms, the fake linings of the magic act. Rather than stealing away from the enchantment, this insight only made it more fascinating. With light and shadow everything worked. Kids and adults alike were drawn up on stage and induced to stick their hand in a velvet bag on under a steel blade. Their trust was uncanny. They abdicated all responsibility. They let the authority of the stage take over them. (p. 60)
Joyce's careful control of his supposed ghost story stimulates similar feelings in the reader. There is smoke in the auditorium, and multiple mirrors, yet they're hardly hidden. We believe in him because he very rarely resorts to the sort of ham-handed stagecraft that more mediocre mysteries hide behind. On the contrary, his showmanship is wonderfully subtle. Joyce refuses to intrude on the naturalistic narrative unnecessarily, or ever advertise his presence especially, tending so far towards the transparent in totality that he appears almost invisible. The whole simply unfolds before us . . '. for the larger part, at least. Alas, his restraint lapses at the last: the final fragment feels quite frankly manufactured. Joyce stops short of marrying off his whole cast of characters, but I'm afraid that's the kind of tidy contrivance we're talking about.
Though this does not detract from the entire inordinately, it definitely sits strangely with the remainder of The Year of the Ladybird, which is otherwise the author's most satisfying effort since Memoirs of a Master Forger (2008). What sets it apart from the first is exactly what it lacks in that last chapter, namely Joyce's ability to engineer—not behind the scenes but in plain sight—a feeling that something magical is happening, something extraordinary, even when there’s little more to the story than immediately meets the eye.
So: not your garden variety ghost story. But a terrific tale all the same, assuming you can overlook its dubious dénouement.
Niall Alexander (firstname.lastname@example.org) reviews speculative fiction of various shapes and sizes—whether in film, literature, video games, or comics—honestly, the lot—for a number of genre-oriented resources, including Tor.com, Starburst Magazine, and Strange Horizons. Failing all of the above, as is the case most days, he'll happily bend your ear over at his blog, The Speculative Scotsman.
You must log in to post a comment.