Saturday, February 20, 2021

Review of The Year of the Ladybird (aka The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit) by Graham Joyce

They are increasingly rare, but there are still examples of books whose titles molt crossing the Atlantic. Graham Joyce's The Year of the Ladybird (2013, UK) became The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit (US). And it's clear why: the US has ladybugs not ladybirds. The better question is: which title fits this fun novel most?

The setting is 1970s Britain in a coastal village, and at the outset the reader is introduced to David as he begins a summer gig working at a family holiday resort. Organizing children's games, helping set up events, and otherwise chipping in as he's able, he comes to know the resort's odd assortment of characters. From one of the attractive dancers to the snaggle-toothed stagehand, the creepy owner to suave singer, David slowly becomes part of the crew. He also meets a macho, aggressive man and his huddled wife, and in the process gets himself into a fair bit of trouble—trouble that only exacerbates itself as nationalists, disappearances, and a plague of ladybirds/bugs invade the resort.

Overall, Electric Ladybird is a novel I have mixed feelings about. Joyce has an excellent handle on pace, keeps the reader in tight suspense about the 'reality' of David's experiences, and overall does a good job building a delicate, “mad carnival” feel at the holiday resort that escalates into a semi-crazy ending. It's a story that keeps the reader engaged, beginning to end, which, for a lot of readers, is the most important measure of a book. Checkmark.

Consistency, however, is another measure of a book. Electric Ladybird is not consistent. On one hand Joyce tries to develop a real sense of emotion and yearning in David, which fails to a large degree because David is rarely if ever the agent of his own future. Things happen, he reacts, rarely a chance for his interests or mindset to guide the story. At the same time, the plot devices lack the substance necessary to fully ground David's plight in situations the reader can relate to. For example, two women regularly throw themselves at David for no reason other than it generates drama. It's a tried and true but entirely unrealistic setup that features two women stripping to make themselves available to a male character with little to zero motivation. There is no emotional connection nor any attempt at being sexually attractive on David's part which would warrant the passion and desire pushed his way—not an argument for feminism, rather one which begs the writer to treat their reader with a little more intelligence. Equally larger than life is a certain villain. More a stereotype than antagonist, it's difficult to be convinced by his scenes. Again, as readable as Gaiman, but with a weak foundation.

In the end, I also have mixed feelings about which title fits the novel best. For the majority of the story, Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit fits best, the combination of electric and blue capturing the playful sense of fun and thrill the story seems to have with itself (seriousness present, but not front and center). But as the climax descends into the denouement, Year of the Ladybird becomes more appropriate. While the seriousness of David's evolution remains inconsistent, its tone and mood better fit the seasonal feel of the latter title, and the uniqueness of his experiences. Thus while Electric Ladybird is technically a ghost story, it's difficult to put too much stock in the taxonomy. Largely realist with a grinning-clown twist of color—take that as you will.

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