The Year of the Ladybird Graham Joyce
Previously published in The Herald magazine.
Something strange happened in parts of Britain during the summer of 1976. There was a ladybird epidemic - much more than a loveliness of ladybirds, this was a veritable plague, with the creatures swarming over everything, alighting on every surface they could find. This scenario seems like it may be a piece of fiction but it is not. It is, though, the perfect crux for Graham Joyce’s latest novel, The Year of the Ladybird.
A young man, David, takes up a summer job at a ‘time-locked’ holiday camp in the seaside town of Skegness. He claims it is to make some extra cash, but his mother and stepfather are (correctly) concerned that it may have to do with David’s desire to connect with his deceased biological father, of whom he knows very little. David joins the fading family camp helping to organise tourists in their activities, giving everyone ‘a big smile and a stick of rock [candy]’ at the end of sandcastle competitions, bingo nights and football games. His colleagues include the lovely Nicky, one of the dancers who seemed ‘as unattainable as the planets in the night sky’, the surly, frightening Colin who somehow appears to have taken David under his wing, and Colin’s wife, the fragile lonely Terri with whom David soon grows much too close - staff, who were like ‘caricature figures on an old-style cigarette card’. For David, who suddenly finds himself in a world he knows ‘nothing of, hyper-real, inflated, one where the colours seemed brighter, vivid, intense.’
In Joyce’s always capable, always direct voice, we experience David’s sightings of a strange out of place young man man and a small boy who seem to keep popping up around Skegness, a pair no one else seems to have seen. Is David seeing ghosts, his brain ‘serpentine with ideas’, or is there a deeper truth he needs to discover within his own memories? Is this a story about a young man’s discovery of a traumatic truth, or a ghost story about a haunting? Joyce is well known for playing with elements of magic realism and fantasy, but many would insist his lyrical prose is ‘literary’ fiction (he himself calls his work ‘Old Peculiar’). Even when Joyce is writing about the familiar, he is adept at washing it in mystery and beauty: ‘Backstage in the theatre is awash with ghosts. It is a memory bank for every cue missed in the actor; every gag that died; each muffled line and dance routine gone awry; each dropped catch, muddle, mix-up and mistake: the tragic moment that turns to farce.’
Far be it for Joyce to shy away from harsh realities, though. Equally frightening is David’s sudden discovery of that some of the camp’s staff are members of The National Front, the British far right political party that had it’s heyday in the ‘70s. David finds himself in the back of a pub, clinging to the idea that he’s been brought ‘to an exclusive entertainment-business elite…or even an afternoon strip-club’, finding himself instead in the company of Skinheads and racists whom he regards ‘in the same way you would regard a rabid dog’.
The Year of the Ladybird is more than just a bildingsroman; it is more than just a story of grief, change and family. It is a thoughtfully crafted little portrait of the ghosts of our past and those that may linger into our future.