The tooth-fairy: a twinkly tiny pixie, with gossamer wings and pretty features, magically coming in the night and swapping the tooth beneath a sleeping child's pillow for a coin? Not according to Graham Joyce in his new novel, The Tooth Fairy. Joyce's tooth fairy is a modern interpretation of an old myth: darker, more frightening and primal.
Sam, Clive and Terry are three friends growing up together in sixties and seventies Coventry and undergoing the trials of childhood and adolescence. However, Sam has a secret: as a five-year old, he saw the tooth fairy, and since that time has been helped and harassed in equal measure, the two caught together in an intimate and seemingly inextricable bond.
The tooth fairy is always there: often in the background, but Sam is never allowed to forget it, and any good it does has a price. It guides Sam through the horror of what happens to Terry's family, haunts him about his experience in the Scouts and taunts him with clues and forewarnings of disaster. For disasters do happen to the boys, despite and because of Sam's faerie companion: Sam, Clive and Terry are typically mischievous children and rebellious adolescents to whom trouble seems to gravitate: from petty vandalism to home-made pipebombs to girls.
For into their lives comes the beautiful and intelligent Alice, and all three boys fall for her charms, while she plays each off the others, knowing full well their adolescent lusts. And the tooth fairy is jealous and warns Sam of danger, but for once, he does not, cannot listen to it.
The plot of the novel is simple, clear and while it contains incident, is as much or more to do with how the characters, especially the boys, react and are affected by their lives. There is no great convolution and surprise endings, but rather an effective telling of an archetyping story of growing up.
What is striking about The Tooth Fairy is the impression of truth about both the characters, location and background. Sam, Clive and Terry are beautifully drawn in their evolution from children to young men and are all particularly easy to empathise with: they are not heros, or even close to perfect, but with their flaws and individuality, they are perfect protagonists for the story. The other characters are also pleasingly well done: Joyce rarely stoops to caracature and all compliment the story and each other. And of course, there is the toothfairy itself: a wonderful, magnetic, almost tragic character, with its rough features, dangerous violence, big boots and, at times, almost palpable sadness, its gender and demeanour constantly shifting to suit the mood and the occasion.
It can also be said that the location of a novel is like a character too: certainly some authors can write as evocatively about a place as a person, and Joyce has similarly brought Coventry to life. It is not a matter of detailed, and often excess, description - a trap too many authors fall into - but rather a loving sketch, filled in with subtle details that the reader may miss individually, but together form a broader, complete canvas. In this novel, the reader can almost taste the city, hear the accents, be drawn into the special places of a child's world.
The Tooth Fairy is an excellent novel for the reader looking, not for extreme thrills and twisted plot, but for a beautiful and intelligent evocation of childhood and growing up in a particular time and place. It is a modern fairy story for grown-ups, at times sad, at times funny, and always thoughtful and strangely gripping.
(c) 1998, Helen Steele