- Book: The Joyce Girl
- Location: Paris
- Author: Annabel Abbs
Avant-garde Paris in the 1920’s is full of creative artistic geniuses and one of the most famous is James Joyce. Lucia, his daughter, desperate to make it as a dancer, lives in the shadow of her father’s immense talent but, through sheer determination, is beginning to make a name for herself. Her claustrophobic family, however, prevent her realising these dreams. Mama Joyce, her disapproving Dublin-born mother never tires of reminding her that she is James Joyce’s muse and must put his needs first. Lucia is manipulated and controlled by everyone around her and Mama is particularly skilful at manoeuvring her daughter away from any career path of which she disapproves.James Joyce’s eyesight is failing and, when the young Samuel Beckett comes to help him, Lucia is captivated by him and falls madly in love. Convinced that she has clairvoyant powers, Lucia believes that her destiny is to marry Beckett. She has become acquainted with Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, who seems to dedicate her life to dance and consequently naïve Lucia believes that marriage will give her freedom. When Beckett rejects her, Lucia turns her attention to Alexander Calder, a sculptor, who has been engaged to instruct Lucia in drawing and she begins to hope that he will be part of her future and the means to secure freedom to dance. But Calder, too, cruelly abandons her. Lucia’s world disintegrates further when her beloved brother, Giorgio, apple of Mama’s eye, is lured away into a mercenary marriage and when her parents reveal a shocking and long kept secret.
Structurally, the novel is intriguing. Interwoven with the chapters set in Paris and London revolving around the life of the Joyce family, are short chapters set in 1934 describing Lucia’s interviews with the pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung, as he attempts to uncover the underlying causes of Lucia’s malaise. He doesn’t achieve much success, having preconceived and erroneous ideas, and, in contrast, Abbs does a much better job of providing the reader with possible causes for Lucia’s ultimate breakdown.
It is difficult to believe that this is a debut novel for Abbs, who has created a sympathetic and powerful portrait of a young woman’s gradual descent into insanity in prose that is so rich and imagery laden that it seems the perfect vehicle for her story. It is also an extremely gripping read, which is not often the case with such a literary work. She has clearly done her research for she brings alive an extraordinary cast of characters and recreates the sense of the bohemian world of Paris in the 1920’s with great vividness.
The Joyce Girl won the Impress Prize for New Writers in September 2015. Richly deserved. I just hope that Abbs gets on with her next novel soon.