A review of The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

Reviewed by Carl Delprat

The Joyce Girl
By Annabel Abbs
2016, 358pp,ISBN:9780733636981, 30 Aug 2016

What a story … all the way from ‘I stand on the deck watching the trailing seams of white foam‘ … right through to page 346 ending with the words:

‘See how they move and sway … slipping like water towards me.
Oh! Oh! Look at the twist of their waists.
And the ripple of their shoulders.
See how they bend their willowy backs. See how their limbs are.
See how they sheer towards me.
My rainbow girls are coming … for me!’

From the beginning to the end The Joyce Girl is an enchanting tale, beautifully written. It drew me in and wouldn’t let go; I was caught and trapped right up to the epilogue. And what a cast of characters … their names kept dropping from this book like exotic fruits, starting with James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Madam Egorova, Alexander Calder, Nijinsky, Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Stella Steyn, Thomas McGreevy, Pablo Picasso, Dr Carl Gustav Jung, Gertrude Stein, Margaret Morris, John O’Sullivan, Isadora Duncan, and Stirling Calder all get a mention.

Annabel Abbs presents Miss Lucia Joyce in mind and action; a young athletic woman addicted to modern dance which fills this rich narrative with artistic intensity. We share with her dreams, fantasies and determination and experience devastating setbacks. The story zigzags within two time frames: one set in Paris and sometimes London during the late 1920’s, the other in Zurich in the early 1930’s.

Abbs’ evocative narrative is full of a medley of Parisian sounds, smells and performances. The reader is fully present and drawn deeper and deeper, yet all the while something foreboding, a premonition perhaps of what lies waiting ahead, creeps between the pages. There is this tension, ever so slight at first but always present; a tautness that takes the reader towards dark places. We follow Lucia Joyce with her blistered feet and bloodstained dance shoes. We share cold chicken and champagne suppers in lavish Parisian restaurants, and then partake in an endless array of publicity promotions.

Sadly, Miss Lucia Joyce attempts to exist and expand within two totally conflicting worlds: the world of a liberated Paris as a dancer and the recognisable daughter of this noted celebrity genius that casts a great shadow. James Joyce is known as a writer of pornography; filthy books condemned by the church and the establishment who perpetually insists that his daughter remain available as a close confidant and muse. Attached to this frivolity lies an alternative world where a manipulating mother keeps Lucia anchored, ridiculed and stifled inside a straightjacket of Irish working class servitude. Norah is presented as a spiteful mother with a 19th century moral compass, technically un-married to the man who wrote banned books.

These two irresponsible parents in turn gnawed away at Lucia’s aspirations, her father giving slack then reeling her right back using his ten year old ‘Works in Progress’ as a footing. Add to this her mother’s jealousy and relentless deflation designed to undermine her ambition. No wonder Lucia was eventually diagnosed as a schizophrenic. James Joyce kept Lucia, his bella bambina, at beck and call as his muse … and he often referred to her as his Cassandra, not the most endearing title. She was the inheritor of his genius, and he occasionally informed her and then used her like he used everyone else.

Was Lucia just a victim of rapid social change perhaps, a creative individual struggling to adapt to all these new principles? I don’t think so. She had a solution for self expression through dancing, and this creative offspring of James Joyce tried her very utmost in the manifestation of dance. However, every attempt was curtailed then surgically dismantled. The same went for Lucia’s romantic pursuits. Lucia was rejected repeatedly, scorned as the offspring of a tainted family, by the same men who sought James Joyce as a mentor. Her family found ways to sabotage all Lucia’s efforts, each betraying her in their own distinct way.

Her brother Giorgio’s damage was the most devastating … to rid her from sight he had her committed into an asylum, and this followed with decades of diagnosis — premature dementia, hebephrenia, schizophrenia, syphilis, hormone imbalance, manic depressive disorder, cyclothymia, catatonia, and neurosis.  The name Cassandra again comes to mind. It certainly became a self-made prediction.

At first glance, Lucia Joyce’s care under Dr Jung’s supervision in Zurich appeared to me to be wrong. This was not the Carl Gustav Jung I was familiar with. The severe psychoanalysis sounded straight from a Freudian textbook where every malady was identified as sexually oriented. However, as the story progressed the mystical side of Jung manifested along with his interest in dreams and then I felt at ease. Besides this was the 1930’s, a time when not all women had been awarded the right to vote. Jung’s prognosis was that Lucia and her father were two people heading to the bottom of a river, except that Joyce was diving and Lucia was sinking.

My conclusion would be taken from a song title on Barry McGuire’s album ‘The Eve of Destruction’: “The sins of a family fall on the daughter.”

About the reviewer: Carl Delprat is a prolific storyteller. His home is the Australian coastal city of Newcastle, New South Wales. Find his books at: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/CarlDelprat