The Joyce Girl

Written by Annabel Abbs
Review by Marina Maxwell

In Zurich in 1934, Lucia, the emotionally frail daughter of iconic Irish author James Joyce, is undergoing the “talking cure” with Carl Jung, trying to make sense of the failures in her life.

Flashback to Paris in 1928, when she is an ambitious and talented dancer with the potential to be successful in her own right but constantly thwarted by her family’s demands, including her father’s insistence that “dancing isn’t an appropriate career for the daughter of a literary genius” and that she must continue to remain at home in her role as his muse. When Samuel Beckett arrives on the scene, Lucia falls headlong in love with him. She is convinced that marriage will be her escape route to personal freedom, but she is destined for further disappointment and betrayal.

There has been a boom in novels set during this era, many of them about artists or celebrities like Zelda Fitzgerald – a fellow student in the same dancing class as Lucia – so I approached this title with a degree of reservation that this might be an overworked genre. I needn’t have worried, as Annabel Abbs proves to be the consummate author. Utterly hooked from the beginning, I became immersed in Lucia’s struggle through the destructive shadows cast by her controlling and demanding parents, the false promises of the “Flatterers” who surrounded her father, and the blighted dreams of a life that could not be lived on her own terms. There is no happy ending for Lucia, but one hopes she continued to dance on in her own inner world and found some solace after all the pain she suffered.

This intimate and absolutely splendid novel must top my recommendations as the best 20th-century fiction of the year.