by Graham Joyce
Published by Pocket Books
271 pages, 2002
Buy it online
A Little Too Nice
Reviewed by David Dalgleish
Smoking Poppy is a nice novel. In its pages you will find awful things -- rape, addiction, paedophilia, murder -- but it is still, at its core, nice. It is reluctant to allow bad things to happen to its characters. When bad things do happen, they are kept off-stage and their ramifications are not investigated with much conviction. It is billed as a "novel of suspense" by the publisher, and there is some suspense in it, but not much. There is even less tension, fear and risk.
The opening scenes prepare us for a different story, a story which will be fraught with pain and need and desperation and, perhaps, heartbreak. Dan Innes, the narrator, is an electrician living in Leicester, recently divorced from his wife and estranged from his two 20-something children. He has just learned from the British Foreign Office that his daughter Charlotte (or Charlie, as he affectionately refers to her), to whom he has barely spoken in two years, has turned up in a Thai jail. She has been arrested for smuggling drugs and faces at least 20 years' imprisonment.
Dan is a closed-off man who has foundered in the aftermath of his marriage. He plies his trade, he reads and he participates in twice-weekly trivia contests at a local pub, but he has never had a meaningful conversation with the two other regular members of his quiz team. He is disengaged from life. If he has strong feelings about anything, it is Charlie; he baldly admits that he is not close to his son Phil, a fundamentalist Christian.
Dan professes to be incapable of understanding his daughter's drug habit or his son's religious fanaticism, but it is clear that his frustrated love for Charlie is his personal opiate. That love gives him access to powerful feelings that are otherwise absent from his life; he needs it like a drug. The novel begins with a disquisition on the overwhelming power of parental love: "For the first few weeks of a baby's life, you are intoxicated by the extraordinary scent of its head. The chemical fix. A gift from the gardens of paradise. You want it all the time " Addiction becomes a metaphor for parenting. This metaphor recurs throughout the novel and is not subtle. Smoking Poppy is as much about Dan's struggle to overcome his selfish, smothering need for his daughter's affection as it is about his attempt to save her.
In order to extricate Charlie from the mess she's in, or at least provide her with support, Dan travels to Thailand, accompanied by his son and Mick, a member of Dan's quiz team who insists on helping him. The three men find themselves in Chiang Mai:
Stepping from the capsule of the air-conditioned hotel was like being plunged into a glinting tropical aquarium, people as ornate fish gliding by in fluid ecstasy, breasting strange tides, bumping up against the coral of all the bewildering street commerce. Even the air seemed like fishtank water in need of a change. Meanwhile, busted chattering neon and fizzing sodium lights played on the contours of the night as if on the scales of a Chinese dragon .... The throb of tuk-tuk motorized rickshaws almost drowned the shouts of little vixen girls waving from bars. Fairy lights blazed against a turquoise night sky, and I mistook the flat orange moon for just another oriental lantern.
Dan's description of the city is a fine example of Graham Joyce's compact, lively, evocative prose. It is prose written by a talented, supremely competent writer. It is not, however, what one would expect from a pragmatic working-class electrician, the kind of man who says of the work of Keats and Coleridge: "I was hoping they might have something to say, but unfortunately they were just books of poetry." Because Joyce is such a fine craftsman, Smoking Poppy is always a pleasure to read, but at the same time it fails to make Dan and his story seem authentic, because it is too honed, too professional.
The disjunction between Dan's anti-intellectual persona and his written "voice" is not the only nagging tonal oddity in the novel. There is a vaguely comic air to the proceedings which is very much at odds with its ostensible status as a "novel of suspense." There is, of course, no reason why Joyce must align himself with the generic requirements of his publisher's chosen marketing category, yet this is, after all, a novel about a father's desperate quest to save his daughter. Presumably, we are supposed to feel some sense of urgency or threat, something to suggest that the emotional stakes are immense.
Instead, the novel dawdles along amiably. In Chiang Mai, there are several amusing "Englishmen abroad" scenes, in which the attitudes and preconceptions of Dan, Mick and Phil clash with those of the locals. Joyce gives us broad, humorous, forgiving portraits of the three men: Dan often unknowingly makes a fool of himself because of his stubborn adherence to his reactionary opinions; Phil's priggish, holier-than-thou behavior incessantly winds up his companions; and Mick is a real piece of work, a loud, large, sweet, obnoxious, gung-ho, opinionated force of nature who acts first and thinks later. Mick is brought to life splendidly by Joyce and is responsible for much of the novel's comic effect.
This would all be well and good if Smoking Poppy were some kind of working-class comedy of manners. It is not. The restrained humor and the fundamental lack of panic or despair suggest something akin to the world of P. G. Wodehouse, a very British world where the worst that can happen is that someone will commit an exceptionally gauche social faux-pas. It never seemed likely to me that the novel would end with Charlie still in jail and Dan mourning what he has lost; the trajectory of the story is a gentle upward path, not a downward spiral.
This does not change even when a surprising turn of events leads our heroes out of the city and into the jungle near the Myanmar-Thailand border, where they encounter armed opium traffickers and primitive, superstitious peasants. Smoking Poppy tames the horror of this heart-of-darkness scenario. Dan is not made to pay a high price for his failings as a father. There is suffering, but he experiences it only by proxy. The first-person point-of-view thus becomes a limitation, as it denies us access to the feelings of those around Dan. The painful rites-of-passage which they must live through seem curiously inconsequential, when they should perhaps be the novel's focus. (It is possible that the entire novel is meant to be read as an ironic indictment of Dan's inability to accept realities that contradict his own view of things; if so, the author is a little too coy about his intentions.)
Graham Joyce wrote a number of acclaimed dark fantasy novels, including four British Fantasy Award-winners, before turning to non-speculative fiction with Indigo and now Smoking Poppy. I have read two of his earlier novels: Dark Sister and The Tooth Fairy. Both are very fine; the author's natural optimism, his tendency to guide his stories toward a safe resolution, is nicely balanced by the supernatural elements, which embody the dark side of human experience. Here, without those supernatural elements, Joyce seems not a guarded optimist but a Pollyanna, aware of the abyss but never believing that one might fall into it. | March 2002
David Dalgleish is a Montreal-based writer. He writes film reviews online at subjective.freeservers.com.