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Onyx reviews: The Facts of Life by Graham Joyce

The Vine family has more than its fair share of girls. Martha and Arthur used up all the vowels for first names and were starting to work their way through the consonants when Arthur decided it was time to retreat. "It seemed to him that he only had to look at Martha with vague intent and she would fall pregnant."

Martha is more than a mother of seven willful and diverse daughters. She has an extra-special touch that brings her visions and premonitions. Her visions are infrequent and often veiled in mystery, but she has learned to trust them.

The only one of her seven daughters to inherit her powers is Cassie, the youngest, described as fey. Cassie (Cassandra, a fairly obvious name) is a flighty innocent, prone to fugues and spells during which she runs wild. On two occasions, she returns from her wandering periods pregnant. The first time, her son is donated to a needy couple unable to bear children. This was also to be Frank's destiny, but the intended recipient fails to show up for the clandestine hand-over and Cassie becomes determined to keep her child.

The problem is that, though she loves her son, Cassie's irresponsibility and careless make her ill suited to be a full-time mother. Martha the matriarch decides that Cassie's sisters will share in young Frank's raising. The entire family suffered through the blitz of Coventry during World War II—Cassie foresaw the worst night of the attack and wandered through the streets carrying messages as the city burned.

The Vine sisters are as diverse as the colors of the rainbow—one is a liberal intellectual. One lives on a farm. The twins live together. Another marries an undertaker and spends her evening helping her husband prepare bodies for display. Their mother plays each of them like a finely tuned instrument (or, perhaps, like a banjo), coercing them to her will in such a manner that they seldom notice or mind if they do.

Over the course of The Facts of Life, young Frank spends a year or two in turn with each of his sisters. Sometimes Cassie lives with them—at the commune in Oxford where Bernice and her long-time companion stay, for example—but other times she cannot manage. She is frail and has spent time in an institution where she was given electroshock treatments.

The Facts of Life is a gentle novel, a tribute to the families that survived the war in England. The story arc describes Frank's experiences in each of the diverse households where he grows up and what he learns from each of his aunts. Frank has secrets of his own—a mysterious friend he thinks of as "the Man Behind the Glass" at the farm, for example. He has some of his mother and grandmother's powers, but he seems less affected by them. He imagines what the American father he has never met must be like. Some of the questions he poses to those raising him show profound insight far beyond his years.

The author clearly loves this idiosyncratic family and every one of their individual foibles. Frank's life has few serious crises and the novel does not possess a definable antagonist. Life itself, perhaps, is all a writer needs to test his characters. At once dreamlike and so deftly drawn that the reader will feel part of this recovering city and constantly developing family, The Facts of Life is a heartwarming and uplifting story that may help put current events in a more historical context.

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