The eponymous Lucia was the daughter of James Joyce, one the twentieth-century’s most revered writers. Relegated to the role of ‘the mad daughter’, the little that is known about Lucia, by anyone without more than a passing interest in her father, are but the bare facts of a tragically wasted life, one that fell through the cracks of Joyce’s genius. She was a talented dancer; had a ‘thing’ with her father’s protégée, Samuel Beckett; was treated for suspected schizophrenia by Carl Jung (who hated her father) and spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum.
How do you solve a problem like Lucia? The Joyce family’s answer was to exile her to a Northampton asylum and, after her death, her nephew Stephen – executor of Joyce’s estate – had all of her papers and letters burned. Lucia Joyce is one of history’s great (many) silenced women, and she wasn’t just silenced, she was virtually obliterated. Alex Pheby’s answer to the ‘problem’ of Lucia has produced an astonishing, beautiful and thoroughly audacious novel.
So, how could we not choose Lucia as our book of the month for June? A new and innovative take on biofiction, Pheby places Lucia at the heart of a story which is not just hers, but that of all women subjugated through the ages. It’s a novel which is difficult to describe – in turns shocking, hilarious, heart-breaking, dark, and utterly, utterly brilliant. The reader doesn’t need to know anything about James Joyce to read Lucia and be completely eviscerated by the scope of Pheby’s writing and the sadness of wasted life and talent.
Lucia opens with a short passage narrated by an unnamed archaeologist, with hieroglyphics lining the base of the page. The archaeologist’s continuing narrative fragments, which are interspersed with the chapters on Lucia, detail his discovery of the desecrated tomb of a female pharaoh.
This novel is not just about Lucia, but about all women who have been defamed and removed from history – often on the grounds of mental illness and sexual delinquency – for daring not to kowtow.
Lucia offers a searing interrogation of textual ownership, control and legacy. Pheby, importantly, never attempts to speak for Lucia – that is not the book’s intent. Her presence haunts the novel, offering the reader perturbing and profound near-glimpses of her potential and possible lives as well as well-encapsulated microcosm of society at the time’s (and indeed at any time) attitude to ‘problem’ women.
Destined to be a book that divides readers – especially Joyceans – this is none-the-less one of the most vital and talked about novels of the year.