Genre: Historical Fiction
For fans of: Alex Pheby, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett
I feel at the moment there is a particular trend in historical literature in which authors are choosing to focus quite specifically and intently on a single particular historical figure to liberate their voice and fill in the missing parts of their story while adhering as much as possible to fact. Almost like a crossover between fiction and academia. Annabel Abbs’ The Joyce Girl is one of those books. Setting out to tell the tragic story of James Joyce’s largely overshadowed daughter Lucia, The Joyce Girl paints a haunting portrayal of a life only half-lived and examines the relationship between father and daughter.
Taking place across two timelines, The Joyce Girl is largely set in 1920’s Paris with Lucia retrospectively looking back on events from the present as part of her psychoanalysis sessions. Attempting to make a name for herself beyond the recognition she gleams from her father’s literary fame, the ambitious Lucia is on the way to becoming one of Paris’ most promising young dancers. Meanwhile, young unknown Irish writer Sam Beckett has entered the Joyce household as reader and companion to James Joyce. However, it isn’t just the author’s friendship he seeks out; Beckett slowly wins over the affections of Lucia and it’s amidst this battle for independence that Lucia’s life starts to take a tragic turn.
An Intimate Glimpse into the Joyce Family
If you’re reading The Joyce Girl I imagine it’s because you’re either intrigued by this neglected historical figure or you’re excited about the literary ties to the likes of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. If it’s due to the latter you’ll definitely find enjoyment in Abbs’ recreations of some of Irish literature’s greatest figures. Her portrayal of the Joyce’s family life and James’ attempts to write Finnegan’s Wake leave the reader feeling like they’ve been invited into the family’s confidence.
You’re easily sucked into the book through these scenes of domesticity and Lucia’s first person narrative. Seeing the likes of Joyce and Beckett in this context is really thrilling for those who are fans of their literature. Even though The Joyce Girl is a work of fiction, it’s ultimately a work fueled by careful research and this is clearly evident in Abbs’ authoritative writing.
Breathing New Life into Lucia Joyce
Besides the many literary cameos, Abbs’ portrayal of her central character – the eponymous “Joyce Girl”, Lucia – is deeply moving. It’s easy as a reader to see that she feels a great affinity with this previously little-explored figure and is determined to let her voice be heard. As you read on you become involved in her hopes, dreams and eventually her sadness as she attempts to realise her ambitions in the shadow of her father’s fame.
Despite being put upon by her friends and family to fulfill numerous roles above her own dreams – that of marriageable daughter, muse, proper young woman – Lucia struggles on to pursue her talents as a modern dancer until a terrible family secret begins to break her down. Even in dance her identity is confused when she is dismayed to learn that she is expected to master the stricter form of ballet before she can truly compete in Paris’ dance scene. It’s really upsetting to see how much responsibility is placed on Lucia by others, and how restricted her world ultimately becomes as a result.
Lucia herself is a wonderfully complex and intricate character. Although you certainly feel strongly for her she is by no means entirely likable. She makes some unwise choices in her love life that I can’t wholly agree with but at the same time is used terribly by the men around her. For instance, Joyce – and his followers – want Lucia to remain with him as his muse regardless of her own ambitions while Beckett seemingly abuses his relationship with James Joyce’s daughter to gain favour from the author. Abbs paints Lucia with such vitality and vigour that it’s truly saddening to see the juxtaposition between the young, hopeful girl and the fretful shadow of her former self sat in Carl Jung’s psychoanalysis room in the 1930s.
The moment that really left me feeling for Lucia is when she feels puzzled because she thinks she’s seen Jung write down “insect” on his notepad…just another instance in which you feel that in her naivety Lucia has become victim to those around her. It was a really shocking moment for me that brought everything home.
An incredibly feeling and insightful glimpse into a previously overlooked yet significant life, The Joyce Girl is an emotional read that has left me curious to learn more about Lucia Joyce and with a new approach to Joyce’s works. I can’t help lamenting on how sad it is that someone who had so much life in her wasn’t allowed the freedom to live it. A must-read for anyone interested in Irish literature or the elusive figure of Lucia, this feeling novel is one of the most interesting books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in 2016.
If you’d like to find out more about The Joyce Girl make sure to check back here on the 24th June for an exclusive Q&A with Annabel Abbs. Follow the rest of The Joyce Girl blog tour on Twitter by checking out the blogs below or searching #JoyceGirl.
Disclaimer: This book was kindly sent to me to review by Impress Books. All opinions expressed here are my own.