Requiem, Graham Joyce

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Requiem, Graham Joyce, Michael Joseph, 1995, ISBN 0-7181-3944-5, f15.99, 304pp.

Graham Joyce came highly recommended by Jonathan Carroll, and that’s enough recommendation for me to read a phone book.Requiem, Joyce’s fourth novel and the first to be published in the U.S., is a quirky book, written in a weirdly flowing style that I associate with several of today’s British authors (Mary Gentle is the author that comes to mind immediately, although shades of Geoff Ryman and Greg Egan are also present). This style is achieved partly through the use of dialogue as a method for moving plot, wherein elements to the story are told by the characters, but almost as a short story told by the narrator to the other characters. The other major element to this style is the use of blind switchbacks (or red herrings) in the plot, and a willingness to “leave out” information, that the reader must fill in by putting together narrator comments, dialogue, and a good guess. In Gentle’s case, I can’t take this style–she does it to such an extent or I am such a fast reader that I miss the subtle implications and quickly get lost as to what is actually happening. Joyce only does it somewhat, reserving it for the secrets that surround his narrator.

Requiem is about guilt. The trick is to determine exactly what guilt. Tom’s wife Katie dies in a freak traffic accident–her car is smashed by a fallen tree–so Tom quits his job as a teacher and travels to Jerusalem. Although it’s been six months, he still has strange feelings about his wife’s death, much more than just the natural ones of mourning and loss. There’s also something not quite right at the school, helping him make the decision to leave for awhile. In Jerusalem, he connects with an old college friend, Sharon, who is working for a women’s counseling center. Along the way he befriends an old man who runs a hostel. While exploring the old city, something he had always wanted to do, and feels guilty about doing it without Katie, especially after her death, he finds himself adrift, confronted by Arab vagabonds, and this strange old woman who scratches out a message in the sandstone walls with her fingernail.

The similarities with Carroll are many. Not only do scenes have that slightly unreal feeling, while remaining so detailed and close to home, the characters are vivid and intriguing, the narrator is questionable in his sanity, and then there’s the ancient manuscript that might be a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls find that could change our concept of the gospel as it is now known. In both large and small items, the concept of truth and honesty is ambiguous.

I liked Requiem, and almost wanted to read it again as soon as I finished it, to see if there were things that I missed as I sped through the book, caught up in the world and the fine writing. I’m searching for Joyce’s other novels, delighted to find another writer who appeals to that same sense of mystery and wonder that has caught me up in the works of Robertson Davies, Carroll, and Iain Banks.

[Finished February 1997]

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