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Smoking Poppy

Graham Joyce

Victor Gollancz / Orion

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 0-575-07229-6

Publication Date: 10-18-2001

227 Pages; £12.99

Date Reviewed: 06-02-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



General Fiction, Horror, Fantasy

06-03-02, 08-22-02, 12-13-02, 01-07-03

Horror novels about parenthood tend to transcend the genre. Few readers can forget Stephen King's 'Pet Semetery' or Ramsey Campbell's 'The One Safe Place'. But few readers will place such works in the same league as Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections'. In 'Smoking Poppy', Graham Joyce transcends the genre, and says as much about parenthood as well as Franzen. He also offers the kind of insights into the thoughts of men that Nick Hornby offers in 'High Fidelity'. He manages to be laugh-out-loud funny and authentically touching. He packs in a gripping jungle adventure and long thoughts about how men view their friendships. He does all of this in 227 compact pages of excellent prose that would place him square on the shelves with Franzen and company had he not already been filed next to King.

As 'Smoking Poppy' starts, Danny Innes, the first-person narrator is literally trying to hammer together a life without his wife and children. Sheila, his wife, has left him for another man. His son Phil has moved out and become a fundamentalist Christian. His daughter Charlie went to Oxford but stopped talking to her parents. He finds himself in a barren bachelor's apartment when his wife calls on him to inform him that Charlie is in jail in Chiang Mai, Thailand on drug charges. Accompanied by his pushy pub mate Mick and his reluctant but insistent son Phil, he makes the trek to Thailand to help her. It is a journey during which he will be dogged by spirits.

From the outset, Joyce excels at offering insights in the male perspective on parenthood. "But for the first few weeks of a baby's life you are intoxicated by the extraordinary scent of its head. The chemical fix." Fortunately, the reader is not in for an overly sentimental or pretentiously "meaningful" narrative. As a narrator, Danny Innes is a refreshingly down-to-earth sort. When he finds that his daughter has been arrested for trafficking in opium, he decides to research the matter. Following the recommendations of the literary part of his pub-quiz trio, he checks out and reads Coleridge and Baudelaire, but find that the poetry just bounces off him without making much of an impressing. He is nonplussed by much of what's happening around him, and his reactions bring just the right tone of humor to proceedings that will grow progressively darker.

Much to his chagrin the sports whiz part of his pub-quiz trio insists on accompanying him to Thailand, even though Danny barely regards him as a friend. Mick is loud, big and blustery where Danny is quiet and reserved, often embarrassed by Mick's antics. The relationship between these men is particularly insightful. The uneasy peace and aggressive expressions that mark and mar men's friendships are carefully but not preciously observed. Danny Innes is a great one for revealing things to the reader that he himself is unable to see. Joyce's voice is faultless.

He's no slouch with the shades of the supernatural that haunt the narrative, either. Few readers will finish this novel without seeing spirits everywhere. Invisible demons and possessors of the soul. Writing a novel about the supernatural without being fully, out in the open overt about it is a difficult task. It's easy to disappoint the lover of the supernatural while annoying the reader who prefers a more mundane narrative. But Joyce's precise command of the language allows him to leave both types of readers happy. Insight and visionary thought become interchangeable, as reality becomes fluid.

All this is carried along effortlessly in a rather tense mystery filled with danger and exotic locations. Moving from urban England to the Oriental chaos of Chiang Mai to the lush horror of the Thai jungle, Joyce covers a lot of territory but brings each picture into a perfect focus. Though he keeps his characters in peril, this is not brain-dead breakneck action. 'Smoking Poppy' offers high-quality tension, literary insight and a bracing dash of humor. It's the kind of compact rocket-read that could satisfy a wide variety of tastes, and hook a lot of readers. Graham Joyce may have turned in his most addictive novel yet. I know I'll be back for more.