On the front cover of Joyous Lies by Margaret Ann Spence we are told, ‘If plants can protect their young, why can’t humans do the same?’ Then, in an extract before the prologue, Maelle remembers the time she was told of her mother’s ‘accident’, which, as she guessed, turned out to be her mother’s death: ‘Maelle saw the lie in her aunt’s eyes’. Intriguing – children can sense the truth. That kind of saccharine coating is not a protection. And so the scene is set, plunging the reader into a drama with twists and turns of family relationships that provide the essence of this beautifully written book.
The Prologue is written from Maelle’s mother’s point of view and we are with her just before the fatal ‘accident’ at night in a laboratory – questions about her motive for going there and the detail of what happened will lurk, distracting Maelle from her PhD research on plants’ communication.
Most of the book is set in a commune established by Maelle’s grandparents when Neil, her grandfather, was a Vietnam War draft resister. Maelle was about ten years’ old when her mother died. She went to live on the commune with her grandparents and the various others, mainly of their generation, who had kept it together since the 1970s. There we can smell the nourishing meals of freshly-picked vegetables, the bread from the oven, and we can feel the softness of the angora, spun and knitted by Maelle’s grandmother. But there are also knowing looks exchanged, secrets, half-truths.
Most of the story is from the point of view of Maelle as a young adult with a scientific career before her – sometimes we see through the eyes of her grandmother, Johanna, who finds her partner of fifty years, Neil, a ‘grizzled man’ who ‘kept tangling in her mind with his golden youth’. In spite of the communards’ values, much of the time Neil seems to treat Johanna with disdain.
Early in the book Maelle meets Zachary, a young psychiatrist, and there is an instant attraction. When, after a short time, Maelle takes him to the commune to meet her family, Zachary acts strangely and some extraordinary links emerge that shed new light on the mystery of Maelle’s mother’s death and further divert Maelle from her studies, threatening to undo a great deal more than her relationship with Zachary.
In tandem with the mystery prompted by Zachary’s reactions when he visits the commune is another equally compelling plot line. Neil agrees to the chic thirty-something Pamela Highbury making a documentary about the commune. This poses a huge threat to Johanna, who wrongly assumes that Pamela is having an affair with Neil. And given that Pamela claims to be interested in ‘documenting human failings’, the project threatens to unravel the essential fabric of the commune. The stiletto-heeled film-maker will disapprove of the ‘feudal power’ under which the women have been engaged in traditional roles such as pottery and dairy, and the men in more strenuous activities.
But the question underpinning Pamela’s investigation is fascinating to the reader (as well as to Pamela’s potential audience): what became of the Hippies? Feeding into this question are matters of coping in old age; working on a commune doesn’t provide retirement benefits. Johanna and Neil aren’t legally married. Does Johanna have rights as his partner? To what extent has the commune genuinely adhered to a non-capitalist way of life?
When, near the end of the book, everyone comes together to view Pamela’s documentary, I was fleetingly reminded of the end of an Agatha Christie novel, when everything comes together in resolution. To the communards’ (and the reader’s) relief, some ‘lies’ are mercifully concealed.
This book is superbly crafted: deftly paced and captivating. What is more engaging than a child wanting to find out how and why her mother died? And now that those people of 1970s ‘Flower Power’ are facing old age, it is intriguing to ask, what is life like for them now? Do they still live by those ‘hippy’ ideals? There are strong characters too – I was particularly drawn to Johanna and to Maelle as she pieces together what actually happened to her mother.
Margaret Ann Spence grew up in Melbourne, Australia, but has spent most of her life in the United States where she worked as an award-winning journalist. After some years she moved to Arizona, joined a writers’ group and decided to take up writing fiction. On her website https://www.margaretannspence.com/about.html Margaret says, ‘I write about women and their families, and the secrets that lie beneath’. Margaret’s first novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, was published by The Wild Rose Press Inc in 2017. It won the Romantic Elements Category in the First Coast Romance Writers 2015 Beacon Contest, it was a finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award and in the 2019 Next Generation Indie Awards. Joyous Lies is Margaret’s second novel. Do get hold of a copy of this suspenseful book. Details of how to obtain it are below.
Margaret Ann Spence, Joyous Lies, The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
First Edition, 2021
Trade Paperback ISBN 978-1-5092-3472-1 Digital ISBN 978-1-5092-3473-8 Published in the United States of America. The book is now available on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Joyous-Lies-Margaret-Ann-Spence/dp/1509234721 and will soon be available from Barnes & Noble and other good book stores.