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Onyx reviews: Smoking Poppy by Graham Joyce

Graham Joyce's American publisher proclaims Smoking Poppy his "most mainstream novel yet" as if this were a necessary requirement for a book to be both good and successful. Joyce has had considerable success in his native Britain through several previous books—he's won the British Fantasy Award four times and has a Booker nomination under his belt.

The wonder of Joyce's novels is that they have one foot firmly rooted in our reality and the other dangling at the edge of some other, more fantastic, place. Readers are invited to interpret when—or if—the story steps over the edge into fantasy. Joyce does not insist readers believe anything otherworldly has occurred.

In Smoking Poppy, Dan Innes is suffering the loss of his two grown children. His son Phil has "contracted Christian Fundamentalism" and his daughter, Charlie—he has just learned—is in prison in Thailand, accused of smuggling opium. She faces at least life in prison and possibly a death sentence.

An electrician, Danny lives a quiet life in a British midlands town. Recently separated from his wife, the highlight of his week is "quiz night" at the local pub. He avoids chitchat and personal questions with equal dexterity, immersing himself in trivia contests while consuming large quantities of alcohol.

Learning of his daughter's plight, Danny decides he must go to Thailand to see what he can do for her. Danny is surprised when his snooker partner, Mick, professes to be his best friend and insists on accompanying him. He's even more shocked when his son Phil, Bible in hand, also shows up for the journey. Danny isn't particularly fond of either of them.

Thailand is several worlds away from Leicester. Things move at a frustratingly slow pace. Danny and Mick argue constantly. Phil snarls pointed Biblical quotes at his father. The heat is debilitating. The British consulate in Chiang Mai is rumored to be a pedophile, frequently absent from his office on forays to neighboring Laos.

When Danny, Mick and Phil finally get to the local prison, they discover Charlie's situation is much different than they anticipated. The mismatched trio is forced to hike through uncharted territory, heading north into dangerous, wild regions beyond the control of any government. Here, the poppy harvest rules. A different language is spoken at each village dotting the landscape. Their guides will only take them so far into this wilderness, unleashing them at the brink of a no-man's-land to fend for themselves.

Eventually they end up in a village run by an English-educated Thai drug lord named Jack who is alternately cooperative and terrifyingly violent. The trio must learn to adapt to local customs and the prevailing mysticism of the people, who believe spirits walk among them.

Smoking Poppy is a novel of self-discovery and awakening. Danny, aware that he has likely driven his children away from him, tries to find the path back—back to his former life, back to his children and, ultimately, back to civilization and reality.

Danny tells his story in a decidedly regional accent. While the vernacular is not so thick that it is difficult to understand, it adds color and veracity to this workingman, who frequently and loudly blames Oxford University for leading his children astray. He journeys far through time and space, emerging from a self-absorbed cloud of smoke thicker than that produced by an opium pipe.

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