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Onyx reviews: The Year of the Ladybird
by Graham Joyce
Graham Joyce's latest novel, The Year of the Ladybird, has several
things in common with Stephen King's recent release, Joyland.
Both feature men reminiscing about incidents from their formative
years in the 1970s. Both protagonists, aspiring writers, take off to coastal
communities between terms in college, seeking adventure. In Joyland, Devin Jones runs off to
a circus in
North Carolina, whereas in The Year of the Ladybird, David Barwise decides to
find work in Skegness, on England's east coast. He takes a job at a summer camp,
where he entertains the young charges and their parents in ways that are similar to what Dev
does at the carnival. Both men have lost a parent, both find love, and both
encounter ghosts and mysteries.
Despite all these similarities, the books are substantially different and
each can be enjoyed on its own terms. The main characters face different
challenges, and take different routes on the path to adulthood.
David goes to Skegness because the place has a personal
connection. The word is scrawled on the back of the only picture of him with his
late father, taken when he was three. He's a well-adjusted young man, for
the most part. He's not a virgin, but he's not entirely comfortable
around women, either. He's not averse to a drink or experimenting with drugs,
but he keeps a level head most of the time. His decision to leave home for the
summer is his first move away from joining his stepfather's construction business.
By striking out on his own, he is tacitly insulting the man who raised him, with whom he otherwise has
a good relationship. The choice of destination is a slap in the face to his
mother, for reasons he will discover over the course of the summer.
The year is 1976, a summer notable
for unusually high temperatures, drought, and an onslaught of the eponymous creatures (known in
North America as ladybugs). With the advent of cheap airfares to sunnier climes, the tradition of the
English summer holiday camp is nearing its end. This particular camp runs on a
two-week cycle, with new families arriving on alternate Saturdays shortly after the previous
group departs. David's responsibilities run the gamut from coaching soccer to
organizing sand castle competitions to verifying the numbers at Bingo games to
running the lights for the camp's resident opera singer. He finds that he enjoys
working with children and can improvise instead of always mimicking the
long-standing traditions, which brings him to the attention of the owners, who hope to enlist his support
for the National Front, a political organization
favored by skinheads, fascists and racists. Having a university student in their ranks
raises their credibility. The scales fall from his eyes as he comes to
realize that everyone working at the camp is running some sort of a scam to skim
money from unsuspecting parents.
David finds himself torn between two women, one dangerous, the other ideal.
The former, Terri, is married to an abusive man named Colin who is the terror of
the camp. Most of the other "greenies" won't even make eye contact with him let
alone speak to him. The latter, Nikki, is a beautiful dancer who is especially
wary of the National Front's overtures to David because she isn't white.
Of course, this wouldn't be a Graham Joyce novel if everything were straightforward, and it does say "A Ghost Story" on the cover. Several times
that summer, David sees a man with a little boy. At first he thinks
they're real, but no one else can see them and they are somewhat indistinct even
to David. The boy's eyes are transparent, like crystal. Given David's reasons
for being in Skegness, the symbolism is obvious, though what this phantom duo is
trying to communicate to David is unclear to him.
As in Joyland, there is also a psychic whose prescience is undeniable.
And then there are the ladybirds, which arrive in Biblical proportions.
There's nothing supernatural about them, but at times the sky is so thick with
the otherwise harmless beetles that visibility is reduced, and camp workers are
forced to shovel the carcasses into bags for destruction. They are the book's
most obvious metaphor. One alights on David's hand the first time he and Terri
speak. Later, he accidentally swallows and almost chokes on one at an
inopportune time. Their presence is pervasive, culminating in a symbolic representation
offered as a gift. What they are actually meant to represent is left to readers
to decide. Traditionally they are symbols of luck, protection or love.
The Year of the Ladybird takes place in what we might now
think of as a simpler time, when the world ran at an easier pace. However, even
those simple times were fraught with danger and the potential for evil. The National
Front is a manifestation of the simmering hatred within a faction of the UK in the
mid-seventies and, although that group didn't prosper, others have replaced it and the
distrust of foreigners is no less now than it was nearly four decades ago.
David's naiveté could have had serious repercussions. For a smart kid, he
makes some bad decisions. Attending a meeting without knowing what he was
getting himself into almost caused him to lose an important relationship, and
his association with the National Front could have adversely impacted his future
prospects. That, coupled with his indiscretions with a married woman, makes him
more credible as a character.
He's not flawless, nor is he wiser than his years. In the end, he's simply a
young man finding his way, making missteps and learning about himself and the world a bit at a time.
Life is full of mysteries and not everything is what it seems to be. This is a charming book, steeped in nostalgia
with just enough mysticism to keep things intriguing.
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