- The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs
Annabel Abbs’s The Joyce Girl is a fictionalized retelling of Lucia Joyce’s life from 1928–1934. It was during these years that Lucia met Samuel Beckett, pursued and then gave up dancing, and had a series of mental breakdowns that, along with the attitudes of some of her family, led to her confinement for most of the rest of her life in mental institutions.
Additionally, in 1934, Lucia underwent psychological analysis by Carl Jung. Abbs’s novel attempts to depict Lucia’s journey to this analysis while focusing mainly on her dancing, her relationship with her family, and her pursuit of romantic love with not only Beckett, but also with Alexander Calder and Alex Ponisovsky. James Joyce is a constant presence in the story as well, as he creates what would become Finnegans Wake and struggles with both his family and his health. Inspired by Carol Loeb Shloss’s biography of Lucia, Abbs attempts to make connections between Joyce’s creative process and Lucia’s mental state.1 Though the novel is easily readable and captures the reader’s attention, it falls short of creating characters with any depth, humanity, or realism. It also fails to treat Lucia’s mental health with care or nuance. Abbs has set herself a difficult task in her overall concept for the novel and in writing about real people; however, her conventional narrative approach and straightforward characterization do not really allow her to engage with the intricacies and complexities of the Joyce family or Lucia’s struggles within that family or within herself.
I want first to address Abbs’s depiction of Joyce within the novel. Throughout the text, he is depicted as mostly unlikeable, unkind, and a little ridiculous. Perhaps Joyce was all of these things, but the portrayal is so exaggerated as to feel unconvincing, and, since Abbs’s style is so straightforward, it is quite jarring to read about Joyce as a simplified character in her book. Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of his character is how he randomly quotes Finnegans Wake in response to conversation. Though he may have done this, the way Abbs portrays him speaking these words feels incredibly contrived. At one point, for example, Joyce says, “Shut the door behind you, Lucia. . . . From swerve of shore to bend of bay. What do you think of that, Beckett?” (102). Abbs has him say this in 1929, and though he may have randomly quoted this exact line in that year, it feels farfetched, adding to a lack of reality in his character.
Though Joyce is depicted as whiny and a little oblivious, he is [End Page 343] spared the outright unsympathetic portrayal that Nora receives. While Shloss’s biography highlights the fact that Nora and Lucia had a difficult relationship, Abbs’s depiction of Nora is so one-sided that it makes Nora seem as if she is not a real person. Abbs also gives Nora a dialect that merely distracts the reader, since none of the other characters seem to have such a way of speaking, marking only her as Irish and highlighting her lack of education. Even more, Abbs has reduced a nuanced personality and her complicated interpersonal connections to a shrill and unmoving character. There are a few moments where Abbs shades Nora with more care, such as during a moment when Lucia is experiencing catatonia and Nora responds with sympathy, but such examples are the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps such an unsympathetic portrayal can be explained because the novel is told from Lucia’s perspective, but that just serves to make the mother and daughter’s relationship too simplified. Giorgio Joyce, Beckett, and a whole slew of other well-known people who pepper the novel also do not escape Abbs’s negative portrayal. They all appear ridiculous and pretentious. It seems that Abbs does not like her subject matter; she certainly does not treat them with sympathy.
The center figure of the book, however, is Lucia, and it is here that I am most troubled...