Lucia, by Alex Pheby

Galley Beggar Press, £9.99

Review by Todd McEwen

Lucia Joyce, the only daughter of James Joyce, died in a mental hospital in Northampton in 1982. Quite a lot has been written about her, or has been attempted, including some ‘novelizations’ of her life, what an odious word. But so little can be known about her as a person that the materials for both biography and biopic just aren’t there. Alex Pheby, on the other hand, has worked a literary wonder by taking just a few objective facts about Lucia and using them as the basis for an investigation of her meaning. And the meaning of Lucia Joyce turns out to be staggering.

Pheby is a master of seemingly effortless parallels. They are daring, irresistible, the kind of comparison that becomes more forceful as a novel draws on. He is adept at linking one little thing with another, in some cases over thousands of years, in terms that any human being knows. He translates a child’s vision of objects and toys into the adolescent and adult experiences of desire, and art, while the doleful experience of family abuse becomes institutionalised by society and the medical profession.

This novel is full of the world’s richness, and wittily, sympathetically describes our falls in trying to grasp it. It deals not just in emotional terms, but in what is really here, what we actually have to work with during our lives. Pheby achieves this not by stuffing the book full of things, but in doing quite the opposite: he takes a small number of carefully chosen objects—you might call them fetishes—and constructs a universe every bit as frightening as the real thing.

He doesn’t waste any time speculating—that’s for novelizers. Paper, matches, snow, dolls, beds, the sinister heat of bodies; the shock of being born, being hit, being kissed, toy soldiers, teddy bears … with these things he shows us the preoccupations and fears of poor Lucia Joyce. And this ‘fiction’ is entirely true, because these things are our things.

In addition to the bare bones of Lucia’s life, there’s a parallel plot, intriguing and at first baffling: the skimpy narrative of an Egyptologist who discovers a curious tomb. Many of its contents are intact, but in the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls, where the story of the inhabitant’s life should be told, her name has been systematically obliterated. This was a shocking thing, given the tenets of the Egyptian religion, which endeavoured to ensure that after death you arrived intact and ready to speak with the gods. Without a name, you couldn’t complete that voyage.

The Egyptologist is haunted by this and becomes obsessed with the dead woman, even obstructing his colleague in dealing with the find in the usual ways. He imagines the woman’s hopes, and her terrible disappointment at her remains being discovered and sent to a museum:

‘And then this was your afterlife, for all eternity. Slaves gone, wives gone, oxen gone, bushels gone. In their place the gawping wax-faced idiots who drag themselves past your body because they think it is the thing to do on a Sunday afternoon, or because they read about you in the paper…’

So was Lucia Joyce entombed, and her history kept hidden from us. Mummification isn’t so different from being thrown into a loony bin.

Despite its requirement that you be kept constantly unsettled, so that you can be told some things, Lucia is full of a stinging, inescapable wit, Joycean (yes), with Rabelaisian gusto and a playfulness straight out of Tristram Shandy. In what could be the first great literary digression of the 21st century, the tapeworm is treated philosophically and exhaustively. It’s wonderfully sickening. And what’s so bad about being a tapeworm, anyway? It seems a lot easier and potentially more useful than being human, or at least with a freedom from self-aggrandizement: ‘A tapeworm is not constantly bothered by drifting ruminations on this or that matter of which it has read in the papers, or vistas culled from memories of visits to Bavaria.’

All the militarism of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries is represented in toys. But in Lucia’s fantasies (and in Alex Pheby’s) there is something instructional to be found in tin soldiers’ hats: ‘They wear the conical hats of dunces, but inverted in shape and colour, perched so the point must exist somewhere within the frontal lobe, lobotomising these men so that they will be able to do the things Napoleon asks of them without question. The tip of the hat embeds where the facility of ethical action was once located.’

Toward the end of the book, the investigations and parallels begin both to loosen, and to blaze out. The Egyptologist’s desires become Pheby’s, perhaps; Lucia becomes not one wronged girl, but many wronged girls, all wronged girls. There is common ground here with Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s superb film Innocence. Lucia is an immensely loud plea for the shelter and nourishment of girls and women, to change society so that what we now accept as unchallengeable can again be challenged.

‘If friends come to call they must be silenced. If suitors are to be found, they must be vetted. If brothers are found with their hands up her shirt and down her knickers it is they, delicate flowers, who must be protected.’

So this is not ‘a novel about Lucia Joyce’, far from it. It’s a novel that looks for, and finds, Lucia Joyce inside of you.