This is a contemporary fantasy set in Joyce’s native Leicestershire – an East Midlands he has mythologized without losing any of its prosaicness. And it is this context of down-to-earth realism which anchors the uncanny elements that threaten to overwhelm the lives of the family at its heart. One day, when their chimney is being swept (a folklorically-rich activity) an old diary is found in the chimney breast. This inciting incident turns the world of archaeologist Alex, his wife Maggie and their children Amy and Sam, upside down – for the diary is that of a witch called Bella, whose ‘herbal remedies’ piques the curiousity of Maggie. At first she uses them to heal minor ailments, but in her experimentation she pushes the borders of safety, freedom and sanity. As she gets sucked into the supernatural her marriage suffers catastrophically. Meanwhile Alex is engrossed in a dig which unearths evidence of a ritual burial – his wife’s burgeoning ‘sixth sense’ locates the find. The couple simultaneously dig down into the dark stuff – and the book is very much about acknowledging the Shadow. Demons within both of them are unlocked. This psychological aspect is made explicit by the need to consult a Dr De Sang, who first examines Sam (who acts out the dysfunctionality of the marriage) and then Maggie (who starts to show signs of personality disorder/possession). As with many of Joyce’s books, the uncanny is always given a psychological ‘reading’, so we, the reader, can decide which paradigm to opt for. This creates a tension lacking in many fantasy novels where the incredible is a ‘given’. Joyce’s characterisation and dialogue is utterly convincing – well-observed, nuanced, complex. He makes his protagonists feel real and so we care for them. These are not superhero cut-outs. There is a deep humanity in his work, one that is life-affirming and celebratory of the daily miracles of existence. It gives voice to the fragility of our lives – how easily they are disrupted, are destroyed. As the ‘dark sister’ of the title invades first Maggie’s mind and the hearth the family unit is caught in a hex of buried hurt, a centuries old grievance narrative left to fester beneath the city centre until brought to light* both in the discovered diary and the dig. Maggie’s frustrated career becomes emblematic of the stifled voices of generations of women – controlled or silenced by fearful men – and yet it is the women who, as in many of Joyce’s books, provide the powerhouse of the narrative: Maggie; Bella; Liz, an old wise woman; Amy the daughter; ‘A’, a shadowy other controlling Bella; even the anagramic Anita (mistress) and Tania (archaeology student/’babysitter’). The male characters (Alex, De Sang, Sam, and Ash) are, with the exception of Ash, the owner of an occult shop, less appealing, less sympathetic. Both Alex and De Sang stand in the ‘rationalist’, scientific camp – facing the mysterious, depthless realm of the feminine with their ineffectual tools. A renegotiation between the genders needs to occur, addressing ancient inequalities – like an intercenine conflict destroying a country, Alex and Maggie’s ‘civil war’ is destroying their home and family. The power of the female must be acknowledged, but also the power of the unknown, the other. Reality is not ruled by what is on the surface.
The use of the diary is of particular interest – as Maggie reads it more is revealed, as though the act of reading is in itself a magical act. It is interwoven with the narrative. At first only obscure lists of herbs and coded inscriptions can be deciphered, but slowly a voice emerges. The past is translated. This embedded book of magic acts as an agent of change within the narrative – disruptive and disturbing, reminding us that words have power and consequences.
As with all of Joyce’s oeuvre, Dark Sister is effortlessly readable and utterly gripping. You know you are in the hands of a warlock of words, one who casts a spell which you do not want to break. The catharsis that comes with this walk on the wild side is powerful and lingering for both the protagonists and reader. Literary flying ointment, this novel is one visceral ride from start to finish.
20 February 2015
*It’s amazing what you can discover beneath a city centre. This feels like a timely book to read in the year of Richard the Third’s burial – the ‘king under the car-park’, another maligned, ‘shadow’ figure brought out into the light.