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Review: How to Make Friends with Demons by Graham Joyce

Reviewed by Bill Sheehan 

The fiction of Graham Joyce has been a consistent source of pleasure and illumination for almost twenty years. Since the publication of his debut novel, Dreamside, Joyce has produced a memorable body of work that encompasses short stories (Partial Eclipse), YA fiction (TWOCDo the Creepy ThingThe Devil’s Ladder), and a number of largely unclassifiable adult novels, the best of which (RequiemThe Tooth FairyThe Facts of Life) have about them a genuine feeling of permanence. His latest, How to Make Friends with Demons, has just appeared in the United States, and that is very good news indeed. If you’re a Joyce fan already, or simply have a taste for intelligent, genre-bending fiction, then you need to read this book.


Originally published in the U.K. as Memoirs of a Master Forger, the novel takes us into the colorfully disordered life of William Heaney, our narrator and protagonist. The opening lines perfectly set the tone for everything that follows: “There are one thousand five hundred and sixty-seven known demons. Precisely.” Clearly, the man who offers this exact, almost pedantic account of impossible things has an extraordinary story to tell.


The Heaney we encounter in the opening pages is a middle-aged Londoner with a multitude of problems. The wife he never really loved has left him for a celebrity pastry chef. Relations with Robbie, his difficult teenaged son, have become dangerously strained. His job as head of a youth advocacy group places him in constant contact with the lowest circles of bureaucratic hell. His social life consists of drunken evenings out with “the Candlelight Club,” all of whose members have been recently dumped by their various wives and partners. His day-to-day existence is, for the most part, as neat, organized, and empty as his expensive London flat.


There are, however, aspects of Heaney’s life kept carefully hidden from the world. For years, he and his comrades in the Candlelight Club have combined their talents to create lovingly detailed forgeries of valuable literary first editions. (Their current project: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.) They then sell the forgeries for absurdly large sums to rabid but unwary collectors, funneling the profits to an under-funded charitable organization called GoPoint, which offers hope and shelter to the lost and homeless of London. 


Heaney has a profound sense of connection to the wayward, “drowned-at-sea-but-don’t-yet-know-it” souls who wash up at GoPoint. He himself is unalterably out of step with the rest of the world. Heaney, after all, sees demons: demons of despair, of “transitory love,” of soulless bureaucratic maneuvering. And he sees them virtually everywhere. This has been the case for more than twenty years, since his unwitting participation in an arcane ritual that altered the course of his life, forcing him to abandon the only woman he ever truly loved.

On one level, How to Make Friends with Demons is a deliberately ambiguous account of a man who believes he sees extraordinary visions. On another level, it is a deeply felt, unsentimental story of personal redemption. Like the many lost souls who populate these pages, Heaney is alone and increasingly adrift. He desperately needs to recapture his dormant capacity for love, to find his way back to his best, truest self. The process by which he accomplishes these tasks dominates the final sections of the novel, and represents some of the finest, most compelling writing of Joyce’s career.  Three women play decisive roles in Heaney’s late-blooming evolution. The first is Antonia Bowen, the administrator of GoPoint whose “impeccable life” gives him both a renewed sense of purpose and a viable model for living. The second is Mandy, the long lost ex-girlfriend who grants Heaney absolution for the sins of his past. The third is a beautiful, mysterious young woman named, alternately, Yasmin and Anna, who has more than a few secrets of her own. A fourth figure, a demented former soldier named Seamus, plays a posthumous, but equally pivotal, role. Seamus’s diary, with its intense, hallucinatory revelations, provides Heaney with the impetus he needs to move beyond the limits of his problematic life.


Seamus, a homeless, badly damaged veteran of the first Gulf War, is one of society’s castoffs, the sort of helpless victim for whom GoPoint, and places like it, was designed. It’s worth noting that How to Make Friends with Demons is, among other things, an impassioned outcry against the callous disregard that allows such misery to proliferate. Heaney, for all his problems, cannot - and will not - avert his gaze from the squalor that surrounds him, and he articulates his outrage in the clearest possible terms.


        I rage when I see the lives of ordinary people squandered.

        The lives of young men and women, weak like me, going

        under the tidal surge of drugs . . . the homeless drifting

        like wraiths . . . brave boy soldiers sacrificed in deserts

        for the ambition of the insanely rich . . .And all I have as

        antidote as I stand lost in the middle of these leaders who

        are not leaders, these demons hidden in the souls of men

        and women, are my humanity and my rage.


These two qualities, along with an abiding belief in compassion, decency, and the human capacity for growth and change, are animating presences throughout, lending resonance and depth to this moving, original, and altogether remarkable book.



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