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Onyx reviews: The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce

“What’s the difference between memory and imagination if there is no one who can tell you whether a thing happened?” This question occurs to twenty-one-year-old Fern Cullen after she dreams of a loved one and wonders if the apparition was a ghostly visitation or just wishful thinking. It also applies to much of British author Graham Joyce’s fiction. How much of what happens in his stories is genuinely supernatural and what is character perception? The author never provides the answer to this puzzle, leaving it to readers to decide. This ambiguity represents the true magic of Joyce’s works, for any of his ten novels can be viewed as mystical fantasy or as the product of an unreliable narrator, mentally or emotionally unstable or under the influence of alcohol, drugs.

Fern, who narrates The Limits of Enchantment, might be excused for having a vivid imagination. Adopted at birth by Mammy Cullen, the village mystic, she was raised in a house where potions and concoctions are as common as bread and butter. Mammy never claims that what she does is magic; she’s merely more attuned to the universe than most, and more knowledgeable about the uses of commonplace plants and shrubs. She doesn’t toil over a boiling cauldron, but knows that certain herbs should be picked under the full moon or in the damp of a morning dew.

It’s 1966—the dawning of a new age—and Mammy and Fern live on the fringes of the community in a rented hovel on a large estate. Just about everyone in town has appeared at Mammy’s front door at least once, seeking her remedies. Her specialties are assisting at difficult births and terminating unwanted pregnancies. Because of the latter, she knows a lot about the illicit goings on within the village and, as Fern discovers, knowledge is power.

Mammy has shielded Fern from much, but Fern is not completely innocent, though most of her knowledge comes from books rather than experience. She knows a little about the drug culture of the hippies who live commune-style in the neighboring cottage, and she knows what Arthur McCann is looking for when he comes courting. Eventually she will be expected to take over more of Mammy’s trade, their only source of income, but Mammy has been reluctant to pass along the most important details of her lore.

Mammy is ostracized her from the community when a patient dies, and powerful forces seek to dislodge the two women from their home. When Mammy is hospitalized, Fern must fend off those who wish them gone while simultaneously attending to the spiritual needs of the community and discovering the truth about her own wants and needs. She prepares herself for her first Asking, a journey to meet her spirit guide, the “familiar” who will counsel her for the rest of her life. Others in Mammy’s circle don’t think Fern is ready to undertake this risky ritual, because she doesn’t truly believe. As one man tells her, “You live in a world where things either are or they are not. And you shouldn’t have stepped into this world where things both are and are not . . . You weren’t fit for it. Not everyone can be.”

Fit or not, Fern believes enough in Mammy’s lore to attempt the journey. Even Fern isn’t certain whether the things she experiences are real, imaginary or both, which leads her to accuse a friend of something terrible she thinks happened to her while entranced.

Written in a distinctly rural English voice,  The Limits of Enchantment is a charming book, primarily because Fern is an enchanting heroine. She is caught between cultures, the past, represented by Mammy; the present, represented by her hippy neighbors; and the future, represented by the satellites she dreams about at night. It is a coming of age novel for a young woman who starts out knowing much about the world and little about herself and her place in it.

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