The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

a book review


image of The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs book cover


When I was seventeen, there was a Guggenheim exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I went there with my art class, and returned, time and again. It was a window into the world of my art text books. Here they were. I stood as close as I could to Brancusi’s, Calder’s, Dali’s, Moore’s and Mondrian’s. I breathed the air next to them like I might catch some ions of genius leaking from the very spirit of each work. I stood back and squinted at them, turned my head and observed them in their minutae. It seemed to me, a spotty gangly teenager in a distant antipodean gallery, that these foreign artists were the master race; their works a gift from the greatest muse of creative expression. The soul of life itself.

The Joyce Girl is Annabel Abbs’ inspired story of an Irish girl in the 1930’s. She lives in Paris, right in the midst of the bohemian art world of my Guggenheim heroes. A dancer, dreamer and artist, Lucia lives in a straightjacket world of obligation and overwhelm. She is the daughter of James Joyce, celebrated writer.  She is known historically as integral to the production of Joyce’s lengthy work, Finnegan’s Wake. She is caught in the undertow of her father’s work, sublimated by her roles as dependent daughter and co-dependent muse. Her own genius, obscured first by the narcissism of her father, despised by her mother and brother and later destroyed by the inept machinations of mental asylums, is explored first hand. She is finally given voice by the author Annabel Abbs in this novel. Heavily based in the facts of Lucia Joyce’s life, we see first hand the struggles of a troubled girl trying to make sense of herself.

“An ephemeral arch of colour, swaying and dissolving. Flashes of imprisoned light. Trembling loops of movement. A wind washed rainbow, my bands of colour shivering and melting. I crouched and twisted. Needles of rain, spiked and hard. I stretched and spread my fingers, soft rays of warm sunlight. I was a swathe of luminous colour. I was the gold-skinned weaver of the wind. Sun-spangled sovereign of the cosmos”  -Annabel Abbs ‘The Joyce Girl’

I loved many things about this book. But, oh, Abbs’ descriptive passages of dancing! She is expert in describing this artform with a keen sense of the visceral experience of dance. I realised that my legs and feet were flexing and moving as I read, and I do love a book that transcends the brain barrier.  I enjoyed Abbs’ turn of phrase; sometimes, I felt she was touched by a Joyce-ian way with words which added depth and relevance to the experience of reading this book. It was immersive.

I so loved the characterisations of some of the artists I had studied as a teenager. That world of Bohemian Paris, where artists came for freedom and connection, was painted with a vivid hand. I felt like I had stepped inside my Guggenheim exhibition. That I could walk alongside Alexander Calder and listen to him expound on shape, form and movement. It was transporting.  And when the time came to explore the deeper psyche of Lucia, Abb’s sensitive writing captured the child Lucia with care. It was emotionally difficult to read, but a necessary and bittersweet journey with Lucia through the dark travails of her mind.

Most of all, I loved that Abbs gave Lucia’s story an audience. I doubt that before reading this novel, I would have read Carol Loeb Schloss’ biography of Lucia Joyce’s life, To Dance in the Wake. But now, I will. Lucia is a woman of history, of art, of feminism, whose story should be told. Abbs’ story of Lucia; childhood trauma, repressed memory, subjugation, dysfunctional family relationships, unrequited love, unfulfilled ambition and incarceration… I am certain is an echo of the many women whose independence and freedom were stolen during times when mental institutions were dangerous places and Psychology a fledgling discipline.

My own Great Grandmother was institutionalised when her children were very small. Now we assume she had undiagnosed postnatal depression. But I wonder who she really was, and now there is no way of knowing. These stories should be told. These voices should be heard.

I recommend The Joyce Girl. Thank you Annabel Abbs for writing this important novel.  I will take it with me on my own metaphorical dance of independence and freedom.




Elizabeth is Missing

Book Review


Maud knows something is terribly wrong.  If she could just remember what it was…

Maud has Alzheimers. She has fragments of thoughts she knows are very important and she is trying to solve a mystery that feels as crucial to her as life itself. But no one will listen. Who would listen to someone who had a sketchy hold on reality?  Where has her friend Elizabeth disappeared to? What is the significance of the things she finds in her pockets?  Why is she always digging up the garden?  And why is she so angry?

This is the first novel from Emma Healey.  It is so cleverly written, there were times when I had to pause my reading and return to linger over the plot transitions, things of beauty, every one of them.  This attention to the construction of the novel pays off. It flows beautifully and, although the protagonist is lost in the maze of her own thoughts, the reader is not. Maud floats somewhere between memory and urgency, desperately seeking the connection between the two.

Maud’s brain, fighting the ravages of broken memory, tries to provide the connection for her.  As the mystery unfolds, it is easy to get attached to the subtextual struggle between mother and daughter.  The details and authenticity of their family relationships, the strength and the sadness.  Healey has drawn her characters and setting sensitively. There is also a good deal of nail biting tension.  This book is an intriguing read set in a context our society does not pay enough attention to. The care and concern for issues faced by the elderly.  Two weeks ago in New Zealand it was dementia awareness week.  All the ads on the radio and my reading of this book have given me much greater insight into the importance of community with regards to this issue.

I feel the need to watch out for the Mauds out there.  To help them stay safe.

There aren’t many similarities between Maud’s affliction and my own.  But I found myself relating to her.  She feels confused, misunderstood. She looks perfectly normal.   People’s expectations of her are based on the fact they can’t tell there is anything at all wrong with her.  I experience that disconnect myself. It’s not that I think people with Alzheimers, or any other health issue, should wear identifying signs on their foreheads.  No.  But I wish people didn’t assume so much based on appearances.  We, none of us, know the battles being fought beneath the surface. None of us know just how difficult ‘normality’ is to achieve for the other.  We are all fighting a battle of our own kind.  So be kind. Talk gently to the confused person. Take a breath and suspend judgement for the person taking their time at the till. The annoying things they do may not be on purpose.  They may no be the result of choice. Be warm, offer a smile, to the person beside you at the traffic lights, or behind you in the queue.

A Grandma I used to know once told me the secret to good relationships.

“Don’t look after yourself,” she said.  “If we all really look after each other, we don’t need to.  Look after each other, put each other first, give generously of your time and your self.  Leave your needs to each other.  And then, you will be happy”.  Nanna Fergs had an optimistic view of others.     It is counter to our current cultural shift toward nurturing ourselves first, others second.  And yet, in a perfect world, it would be lovely wouldn’t it?  Everyone looking out for everyone else.  Unselfish, outward kindness.  Careful, thoughtful responsibility towards others.  I think there is more need for community kindness, particularly towards our elderly.  They have contributed in their family roles, their working roles, their tax paying citizenship, they have deposited years of love into the community, one way or another.  Some more kindness in their direction would be a good way of looking after them in return.

It reminds me of a beautiful piece of writing that has been doing the rounds on Facebook.  Thought I would share it here today because it relates so beautifully:

“My dear girl, the day you see I’m getting old, I ask you to please be patient, but most of all, try to understand what I’m going through. If when we talk, I repeat the same thing a thousand times, don’t interrupt to say: “You said the same thing a minute ago”… Just listen, please. Try to remember the times when you were little and I would read the same story night after night until you would fall asleep.
When I don’t want to take a bath, don’t be mad and don’t embarrass me. Remember when I had to run after you making excuses and trying to get you to take a shower when you were just a girl?
When you see how ignorant I am when it comes to new technology, give me the time to learn and don’t look at me that way … remember, honey, I patiently taught you how to do many things like eating appropriately, getting dressed, combing your hair and dealing with life’s issues every day… the day you see I’m getting old, I ask you to please be patient, but most of all, try to understand what I’m going through.
If I occasionally lose track of what we’re talking about, give me the time to remember, and if I can’t, don’t be nervous, impatient or arrogant. Just know in your heart that the most important thing for me is to be with you.
And when my old, tired legs don’t let me move as quickly as before, give me your hand the same way that I offered mine to you when you first walked. When those days come, don’t feel sad… just be with me, and understand me while I get to the end of my life with love. I’ll cherish and thank you for the gift of time and joy we shared. With a big smile and the huge love I’ve always had for you, I just want to say, I love you … my darling daughter.”
Original text in Spanish and photo by Guillermo Peña.
Translation to English by Sergio Cadena

If you like books that deal in the depth of family relationships, questions of identity and truth, this novel is a great read.  I really thought it a brilliant first novel. 🙂

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

I am a sucker for a beautiful book.  Creamy handcut pages, matt, art-print quality slip cover over the hardcover seriousness of a first print run.  And …a topic close to my heart. What a winning combination!


Elisabeth Tova Bailey writes with fine detail and thoughtful delicacy about her darkest days battling an auto-immune variant of Dysautonomia, (Autoimmune Autonomic Ganglionopathy).  I discovered this book when an AAG sufferer mentioned it on a support group I belong to.  I was fascinated.  Of course, the snail analogy I knew was a good fit… but ‘the sound of a wild snail EATING?’….I was intrigued. I ordered it and I am so glad I did.  It is a beautiful little hardcover volume.  Physically perfect, laced with carefully chosen words, imbued with genuine feeling.  It’s a true story. It’s close to home for so many of us in the world of chronic illness.

One day, Elisabeth was an independent, educated person travelling through Italy.  The next she was struck down with a sickness that would change her life.  She didn’t have a name for it, she thought perhaps it was flu.  But then she was hit with paralysis and began to experience the autonomic dysfunction that would come to be her constant companion.  She became bedridden and all that her life had been was irrevocably changed.

But a chance visit from a friend, a pot-plant, and a little snail retrieved from the path was to change her life and focus once again.  Elisabeth began to take an interest in her new gastropod companion.  A snail may be an odd pet, but it was ideal for someone who could barely lift her head. She made careful observations and began to research whenever she could.  What she discovered, about snails and about her own slowly recovering self, is extraordinary.  This book is testament to her inner strength, to her sensitivity and intelligence, to her resilience. And to her ability to transcend the horrors of a debilitating illness and find beauty in the minute intricacies of the tiny world she inhabited.

Here is a sneak preview of some of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s words:

“When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions:  the confused family of whys, whats and whens and their impossibly distant kin, how.  The search is exhaustive, the answers, elusive.  Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness and intolerable loss”.  page 5

(regarding visitors) “I could also see that I was a reminder of all they feared:  chance, uncertainty, loss and the sharp edge of mortality.  Those of us with illnesses are the holders of the silent fears of those with good health”  page 39

(on the snail’s ability to go dormant) “How wonderful it would be if we humans with illnesses could simply go dormant while the scientific world went about it’s snail-paced research, and wake only when new, safe medical treatments were available.  But why limit such an amazing ability to the ill? When a country faced famine, what if the entire population could go dormant to get through a hard time in a safe and peaceful way, until the next growing season came around?”

Sigh.  If only!  I recommend this book to anyone with AAG, autonomic dysfunction of any kind or any chronic debilitating illness.  It is an especially important read for the people of these communities and one of the few books written by a patient on the subject of autonomic dysfunction.  Don’t expect to find detailed descriptions of symptoms and treatments, this book is a study in analogy, a description of the journey of the human spirit.  It’s a good read and worth tracking down.

Here is where I found my copy:
The Book Depository (free delivery to NZ and Australia)


North of Normal

Book Review

Last time I was in my favourite bookshop, this book insisted on coming home with me.  The title intrigued me but the subtitle even more so.

I didn’t have a wilderness childhood, but I could see that Cea and I already had a few things in common.  It looked like a memoir I wanted to read.  I do like a good memoir… I wasn’t disappointed.  A good book to me is always evidenced by how much I need to keep reading it.  If I am frustrated by the interruptions life imposes on my reading, it’s a good book.  If I have devoured it within days, it’s a good book.  Cea’s memoir of her unique, fascinating and disturbing childhood is definitely, a good book.  She writes well and her story is un-put-down-able.  I couldn’t get enough.

Years ago, back during my own left-of-centre childhood, my brother used to wear a T-shirt with
“ARE YOU NORMAL?” emblazoned across the front.  I loved that t-shirt.  We were missionary kids, we were nomadic, we were often the new kids at school: feeling ‘normal’ was out of the question.  I attended thirteen schools, so being different was the only normality I knew.
Small wonder the title of this book called to me.

I found a lot in there to relate to.  And some things that blew my mind.  Far out man.

Cea Sunrise Person belonged to a hippy family who followed their convictions out into the Yukon wilderness.  Their lives were unusual, their boundaries flexible.  Things that most people would consider strange, were part of daily normality for them.  Cea grew up living in a tipi, with no running water, electricity or modern conveniences.  She was the only child in a family of grown children and two grandparents.  Every summer, they hosted visitors who had come to learn their way of life. They lived without convention, wore clothes only when the weather made it necessary.  Drugs and free love were by products of their lifestyle.  For Cea, her early childhood was the only normal she knew.  When she was around 5 her mother embarked on a new relationship and they left their wilderness home.  By default, Cea was forced to live the life of a homeless wanderer.

Her journey through childhood and early adulthood is a tale of overcoming.  She is testament to the power of measured, thoughtful self-analysis… and courage.  Her victory over her circumstances and arrival in a place of wholeness and contentment is inspirational.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how she triumphed in spite of the difficulties life placed in her way.  It’s no ordinary “I overcame” story.
She’s no ordinary person.
She’s Cea Person, and I recommend her memoir.

And how is this for an opening paragraph:

I rolled over in bed, reaching for the warmth of my mother under the bearskin blanket.  She wrapped her arms around me, and I pulled Suzie doll into my chest so we were three spoons.  The birds were just starting to call.  Through the tipi poles above, I could see a patch of lightening sky.  Any moment now, our canvas walls would begin to turn from gray to orange.  It was the time of day I liked best, because it was the start of everything…

This song seems like the perfect accompaniment for this book.  It puts me in mind of all the idealistic hippies who looked for utopia and found something less.  And there is something in the sweetness of these two that puts me in mind of little Cea, lost in the wilderness of her family’s creation.  Here’s to all lost little girls, wherever they may be.  May they find their way.