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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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