In preparation for this (long overdue) addition to my Graham Joyce retrospective project, I went back to see how many of his adult novels were written in a female first-person voice. I was shocked to find that it was only one: The Limits of Enchantment. It’s not really that odd, except that in my mind Joyce had such a perfect command of female characterization it just made sense that he would have written several novels from a first-person female perspective.
That wonderfully confident ability to write from a female point of view is one of the features that leads me to classify The Limits of Enchantment as one of Joyce’s Three Great Masterpieces (and, yes, I think the caps are entirely justified).
Limits tells the story of Fern Cullen, a young woman adopted and then apprenticed by a midwife nicknamed Mammy. The story unfolds primarily in 1966, as rural England begins to feel the creeping changes of the postwar British order. The National Health Service has been established, the government begins to regulate the practice of midwifery, and the Cullen family finances appear increasingly dire. Despite these economic and social pressures, Mammy and Fern carry on in good spirits until the untimely death of a young woman who had recently sought an abortion from Mammy. Reputation crushed, Mammy begins a precipitous mental decline, and Fern must learn to take charge of her care while also attempting to complete a mandatory midwifery course and hold off the landowner seeking to evict them.
Of course, this being a Graham Joyce novel, there is also a fair amount of subtle magic and spirituality at work. Mammy is one of the few remaining people in the area to believe in and practice forms of magic not quite dramatic enough to resemble witchcraft but certainly going well beyond country superstition. At the center of this loose belief system lies a ritual known as Asking, a harrowing drug-induced spiritual journey only to be undertaken in times of extreme need or crisis.
While the main conflict of the novel centers on Fern’s attempts to avoid eviction, gain her midwifery credential, and shield Mammy from disgrace and possible institutionalization, there are several intertwined subplots. Two of these involve young men instrumental in Fern’s sexual awakening: nice local boy Arthur, and new hippie-commune resident Chas. It would be unfair to spoil the specific role each plays in the story, except to say that their interactions take some unexpected turns. Along with these two quasi-romantic subplots, there are also various comings and goings involving the pregnant women of the village as well as a burgeoning friendship with Judith, a young, witchy true believer of Mammy’s Old Ways.
The climax of the story comes with Fern’s Asking, a trippy sequence involving hallucinations, human-animal transformations, and one shockingly violent and disturbing attack. The literal reality of this entire ordeal is open to debate, but it permanently alters the trajectory of Fern’s character and the way she approaches her dire economic situation.
While this book ticks all the Graham Joyce boxes—a fascination with the power of sexuality, blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality, and the effects of larger social and political shifts on individuals and small communities—it also offers a few unique features that set it above most of his other work. To start with, Fern Cullen is by far his most vividly rendered and sympathetic protagonist. She’s far from perfect; as written by Joyce, in fact, she can be hostile and an overall stick in the mud. She’s also, however, sharply intelligent, independent, and deeply observant about human relationships while also being too young to know entirely what to do with those insights. Not one stray thought or line of dialogue rings false, which is all the more remarkable considering the deeply gendered issues confronted by this male author through the eyes of a female main character.
Beyond the overall strength of Fern’s depiction, though, is the fact that she spends a great deal of time and energy grappling with the magical elements intruding on her orderly world. Fern, you see, is not much of a believer. Yes, she has been raised with knowledge of these older forms of spirituality and systems of magic, but she doesn’t know if she really believes any of it. Listening to news broadcasts about the space race and learning the scientific consensus on fetal development, she isn’t sure she has any time for a culture in which one asks the moon for advice or decides a course of action based on signs and portents. Some of Joyce’s other protagonists ignore the magic around them, and others dive wholeheartedly into it, but only Fern Cullen teeters on the brink, taking a close look at what she believes and wants to believe. The realistically painful and difficult way in which she gradually reconciles these two forms of knowledge forms the core of her emotional journey, and Joyce executes it just perfectly.
One other feature sets this novel apart from Joyce’s other work, and that is in its use of an unreliable narrator as a way of toying with audience expectations. We trust Fern isn’t crazy, exactly, but we can also be sure not everything she describes is happening in the way she says. In approaching the story through this lens, Joyce constantly challenges us to rethink our assumptions about memory, reality, and the construction of narrative. As Fern Cullen warns us on the opening page, “And while I offer you my story unbroken, like the apple peel, it hangs by a fiber at every turn of the knife. When you come to know the nature of the teller of this tale you may have good reason to doubt both. . . Perhaps I once was mad. Briefly.” But as told by Joyce, truth isn’t black and white. There is truth in the madness, and it is this realization that finally allows Fern to reconcile the magical and mundane sides of her life. The rest of us should be so lucky.