(2013) Graham Joyce, Gollancz, £12.99, hrdbk, 265pp, ISBN 978-0-575-11531-6
For once, a fantasy novel where the fantasy actually gets in the way of the story. This book works best when it forgets to be a ghost story and starts being a realistic re-creation of the British summer heatwave of 1976.
Its capture of the seedier side of seaside holiday camp work is remarkable. I stayed at several holiday camps in this period, and I worked in one myself for half a season in 1982. I even visited the famous Butlins camp in Skegness, (the first of its kind to open in Britain) though this book’s Skegness camp is not Butlins, in so far as it has Greencoats instead of Redcoats.
The ghost story element comes from David, the main protagonist, seeing glimpses of a mysterious glass eyed boy-child and father at various stages of his adventure, as harbingers of impending personal tragedy.
We are told who they are in the opening chapters; before Joyce spends the rest of the novel building up the big surprise of revealing this exact same information to us again as a big reveal closing surprise. Did he hope we had forgotten it all?
David is a student, working the summer season on the camp for extra money, though he chosen a seaside town where his father died in his own childhood, leaving him abandoned on the promenade in his infancy. His mother and estranged stepfather find his desire to revisit the site of the tragedy rather morbid.
What makes the novel work is the grotesque staff David works with, a collection of appalling rogues and losers who are all out to rip off the customers at every opportunity. This is Hi-De-Hi with teeth and utterly credible: these people are truly horrible.
Matters reach a peak when David finds out that many of the senior staff of the camp use their status as a front for their membership of the National Front neo-racist group precursors to the present day British Nationalist Party (BNP), and they expect David to join them. Can he avoid doing so without a severe beating?
David complicates his life further in his affair with a woman who is the wife of the camp and party’s leading thug, though another entertainer, an Italian Opera singer, is also involved with the lady concerned. Another girl, one of the few non neo-fascists, also has the hots for David, but will he realize this in time?
The story works well enough without its ghosts who actually prove distracting from the real drama and horrors.
Joyce tries hard to give everything a nice politically correct conclusion, so even the outright villains get off too easily.
The title comes from the genuine plague of ladybirds that the heatwave generated in the UK, and for its flaws, this is a very good story carried more on character study than plot. It’s all quite readable and memorable, but it needed a sharper, darker conclusion than Joyce provides.
There are numerous asides and red herrings that go nowhere along the way; the man who walks a full grown lion round Skegness, and the trips to an abandon mine to dump rotten meat from the camp kitchens prove to be intriguing right up until you realize they are irrelevant asides. Even the ladybirds of the title are just there to set the scene and atmosphere of the times.
It is as though Joyce is eager to add supernatural fantasy elements due to his success with them in his other work, but this really deserves to be a non-fantasy human-interest story. Once you have the National Front as your villains, no ghost is ever going to be scary enough.
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