Annabel Abbs grew up in Wales and Sussex, with stints in Dorset, Bristol and Hereford. She has a degree in English Literature from the University of East Anglia and a Masters in Marketing and Statistics from the University of Kingston. After fifteen years running a consultancy, she took a career break to bring up her four children, before returning to her first love, literature. Her debut novel, The Joyce Girl, won the 2015 Impress Prize for New Writing and the 2015 Spotlight First Novel Award, and was long-listed for the 2015 Caledonia Novel Award and the 2015 Bath Novel Award. Her short stories and journalism have appeared in various places including Mslexia and the Huffington Post, and her blog, featured in the Daily Telegraph in August 2015 and May 2016. She lives in London and Sussex with her family and an old labrador.
The Joyce Girl
By Annabel Abbs
Excerpt from The Joyce Girl
The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs tells the story of Lucia Joyce, a dancer in 1920s Paris and the daughter of James Joyce. It won the Impress 2015 Prize for New Writers, was longlisted for the 2015 Bath Novel Award and the 2015 Caledonia Novel Award, and was shortlisted for the 2015 Spotlight First Novel Award. It’s since been sold to several countries including Hachette in Australia and Aufbau-Verlag in Germany.
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce sat in the muffled silence of his thickly-carpeted, heavily-draped hotel room. He had his head in his hands. His loneliness seemed to stalk him these days, like a shadow he couldn’t shake off. Or was it more like a growth, a tumour or goitre that swelled from the back of his neck. Perhaps the hotel staff laughed behind his back. Perhaps it was as obvious to everyone else as it was to him. Perhaps that charlatan, Doctor Jung, had seen it too.
He missed Nora. He missed the way she brushed the dust from his shoulders. He knew it was dandruff but she always said “’Tis dust and nothing more, Jim.” He missed the way she straightened his cuffs and fussed over his bow tie and made sure his shoe laces were securely tied. He missed the way she moved around him, her chin thrust out like the prow of a ship, steering and manoeuvring him so he wouldn’t bump into anything. And her voice … He would do anything to hear her voice…But he’d already telephoned her three times this morning and on the last occasion she had sounded distinctly irritated. He’d have to telephone her later. Perhaps he’d ask her again, one last time, to join him in Zurich.
He picked up the blue crayon he’d been trying to write with. He must write at least one more word this morning. Five words would be preferable. If he could do five words before Lucia visited, he would be happy. One short sentence. One short sentence a day. It would have to suffice. He took off his spectacles and wiped briskly at his eyes. He felt the tears standing in them. They were always there now. Everyone thought it was his eyes playing up again. But it wasn’t.
Tears, ears, Mr Earwicker, earwigger. It was all there in his book. The book he couldn’t finish. Finnegans Wake. The title was still secret of course. But yesterday, he’d revealed it to Lucia, as they jigged round his hotel room. He’d explained all the puns, the layers of meaning, the double entendres. Of course she’d understood it all. Her response had been the very antithesis of his wife’s. When he’d told Nora, all those years ago, she had looked at him quite blankly and then said “You and yer words, Jim.” And that had been that. But Lucia had understood it all. And when Jim said “This book will keep the professors busy for three hundred years,” she threw back her head and laughed with unbridled glee.
He felt a sudden spike of anger. Why did Doctor Jung talk of nothing but his, Jim’s, effect on Lucia? At times he imagined putting his hands round the ignorant Doctor Jung’s fat neck and throttling him. Why did no one understand about her effect on him? Finnegans Wake – this tightly-woven tapestry of words, this spangled net of language – was her book. He couldn’t have written it without her. Why did everyone talk of his genius, but never of hers? He looked up at the window, noticed the fresh snow drifting against the glass. The brightness hurt his eyes. He adjusted his spectacles, peered so hard he felt pain slice through his cornea. But something in the way the snow moved stopped him drawing the curtains. The way it floated, wafted, and then the sudden scampering as a few flakes caught the wind and seemed to tap, like the toenails of small children, upon the glass. As if the snow wanted to come in…
He opened the window a fraction. A clutch of snowflakes gusted straight into his face. He felt them hit his forehead, soften and melt, roll down the lenses of his spectacles. He closed the window and returned his gaze to the scene outside. It seemed to him the flakes were dancing: spinning and turning in a wild frenzy of abandonment. Lucia! She had come to him …And in that moment, words streamed into his head. He picked up his crayon and began writing. “So and so, toe by toe, to and fro they go round, for they are the ingelles, scattering nods as girls who may … And they look so lovely, loovelit, noosed in a nuptious night.”
For a second he saw himself not writing but dancing with words, as she had shown him. He paused, looked back at the window. The snow swirled and sang. He felt it close around him. He shut his eyes. And there she was again. She was everywhere, in every snow flake, in every filament of his memory, in every fibre of his body, in every word of his execrable book. He started writing and the words seemed to fly from his crayon, from his fingers.
“For the last time in her little long life she made up all her myriads of drifting minds in one … A lightdress fluttered. She was gone. And into the river that had been a stream, there fell a tear, a singult tear, the loveliest of all tears…”
Such a rush of thoughts and words – like striking a vein of gold, he thought. Striking it so hard shards of golden ore, bright ingots, flew into the air. And how adroitly, how nimbly, he had caught them. He put down his crayon and counted the words. But he couldn’t concentrate. He kept miscounting, muddling words and sentences, confusing single and double digits. He felt his blood slow and his heart tighten and shrink. He stopped counting. Another thought was swimming just below the surface of his mind. Rising now. Assertive. Strident. He felt the thought still and coagulate, like the hardening of clay.
He sat very still. He could feel the words nudging and creeping from his mouth. They wanted to be said aloud. “She will not be well until I finish this book.” He removed his glasses, pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes. These perpetual tears…Would they never end? He put his glasses back on and sniffed. “When I leave this dark night, she too will be cured.”
The air buckled around him. The snow beat against the window. He laid his hand carefully on the manuscript in front of him. He could cure her! He would cure her! But only by finishing this cursed book. He picked up his crayon again.