Smoking Poppy by Graham Joyce
(Victor Gollancz, £12.99, 227 pages, hardback; published 18 October 2001. US edition published by Pocket Books.)
If all is right with the world - if the planets and stars are in proper alignment, if the tides are in our favor - Smoking Poppy will become Graham Joyce's "breakout success novel".
I'm not sure how it happened this way, but for some bizarre and unfathomable reason, Graham isn't exactly a well-known author. Oh, true, he has his legions of fans, and he is well-respected by a wide range of authors and critics, from powerhouse bestseller Stephen King to whippersnapper nonentity Gabe Chouinard. But somehow, some way, Graham Jocye has slid like an eel beneath the surface of mainstream notice.
All of that will change, I hope.
Smoking Poppy is without doubt Graham's finest novel to date, which is a telling statement for an author that has already won four British Fantasy Awards, a Booker nomination, and various sundry other accolades.
Ostensibly, Smoking Poppy is the story of Dan Innes, everyday normalman in working class England, frequenter of pubs and trivia challenges, reader of science fiction, electrician-by-day. But Dan's reality is transformed when he receives a phone call, informing him that his daughter - his estranged, rebellious, Oxford-attending daughter - has been imprisoned in Thailand for drug smuggling.
What follows is a journey, both physical and spiritual, as Dan travels with his fundamentalist Christian son Philip and his non-friend Mick to exotic Chian Mai and beyond, into the heart of the jungle. And, naturally, into the heart of the beast.
At its surface, Smoking Poppy reads like an adventure tale; a literary thriller populated with not-quite-normal protagonists. Graham's tight, lyrical prose succeeds in making the reader twitch, spasm, convulse and jitter in anticipation. Indeed, there were times when I caught myself flipping pages too quickly, too desperate to find out what came next, unable to take the time to sit back and enjoy the poetry of the prose. The narrative twines snakelike through the subconscious, wiry and slick and compelling. In this way, the author has already super ceded the everyday thriller....
But fans of Graham Joyce know better than to accept the surface tale. Those that have read Requiem and Indigo and The Tooth Fairy already know that Graham is a dark fabulist, that nothing is as it seems on the surface. This is no mere thriller, no simple adventure tale. Oh no.
At its heart, Smoking Poppy is abut fatherhood, relationships, and the nature of families. It is about the redemption of the spirit, and the journey that a man must make to become a full human.
Like Graham, I have a daughter. Like the author - and like Daniel Innes - I know that some day, the daughter will grow up and move along, no longer 'daddy's little girl'. And this fact - this fear - informs Smoking Poppy to its core.
This Truth is the catalyst that sends Dan Innes on a much more difficult quest than simply finding his daughter. Among the opium growers in the mountains of Thailand, Dan's true quest becomes one of growth, transformation and redemption. As in life, as well as much of Graham's writing, the true journey is a spiritual one. It becomes profoundly moving, profoundly disturbing, and the latter half of the book is an emotional catharsis that leaves the reader raw and exhausted, as any good book should.
For too long, speculative fiction has been severed from the mainstream by a vast chasm, deep and foreboding. But with Smoking Poppy, Graham Joyce has built us a bridge. Here is a deft, literate, suspenseful novel that has the potential to capture the imaginations of the masses. Slim, sleek and deadly, Smoking Poppy has already surpassed the copies of Jonathan Carroll's The Land of Laughs and Matthew Stover's Heroes Die that I normally pass around to people that 'don't read fantasy'. Over a dozen others have read Smoking Poppy from my hands, and all have loved it.
So will everyone else, if given the chance.
Here's the grim bottom line. Rush out and buy a copy of Graham Joyce's Smoking Poppy. Then force everyone you know to do the same.
Let's all take a walk across the bridge that Graham built, together.
AFTERWORD: Author's Note
I originally wrote this review several months ago, from an advance review galley sent by the American publisher, Pocket Books. Rather than rewrite the review, now that the hardcover edition has arrived, I've chosen to leave it as is, so I may illustrate a point.
While Smoking Poppy contains elements of the fantastic within its pages, it is by no means science fiction or fantasy, or even slipstream. Yet, having taken a job at one of the large chain bookstores since writing this review, I had the opportunity to watch Smoking Poppy arrive in the stores... and I had the opportunity to watch in frustrated dismay as the book was shelved in the science fiction section of the store, along with Graham's other novels.
This is wrong.
While I understand the logic that compels a bookstore to shelve books grouped by author, in the section they are best known for, it is still appalling to see a work of nearly straightforward mainstream literature sit unnoticed on the SF shelves that aren't normally browsed by the average, non-genre reader. The bridge that I spoke of in the review will never work if readers of 'non-fantasy' never even notice the book.
I blame the bookstores for this oversight, but I blame the publishers more. Pocket Books know that Smoking Poppy doesn't belong in the science fiction section of the store. They know that it is a book deserving of wide readership. Have they done anything about it? No, not that I've seen. Instead, I assume they hope that Graham's readers will generate the word-of-mouth that will assure that the novel is passed around, to eventually gain wide readership. Foolishness.
Smoking Poppy is a prime example of where publishers are abandoning their authors in favor of the guaranteed Next Bestseller. Until publishers are willing to support those novels by so-called 'midlist authors', this will continue to happen. As readers, we must stand up and show our support of those writers that we enjoy, and we must be vocal about it. Until we do so, excellent authors like Graham Joyce will continue to go unnoticed by the masses.
And that's a shame.
Review by Gabe Chouinard (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Gabe is a struggling writer/editor. View his blog at www.hypermode.blogspot.com
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© Gabe Chouinard 23 March 2002