Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA
Having read and enjoyed Graham Joyce’s latest novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, I decided to read one of his earlier works, Smoking Poppy, from 2002.
In Smoking Poppy, Dan Innes learns that his adult daughter Charlie, who he hasn’t seen in years, has been arrested on charges of drug smuggling in Thailand where she awaits a probable death sentence. Dan decides to travel to Thailand in order to bring his daughter back home. He intends to go it alone, but things don’t work out that way. His friend Mick wants to go with him, which comes as a surprise to him since Dan doesn’t even realize they’re best friends. In fact, he’s shocked when Mick calls him his “best mate.”
His best mate? This was complicated. I didn’t realize I was his best mate, nor he mine. We’d known each other for some years, true, but then only as snooker partners and quiz makeweights. I didn’t much go in for this “best mates” thing; I didn’t see the point. Your best mate as far as I’m concerned is your wife and your children and the family you build your life around. You stop having best mates when you’re fourteen. But I had to tread carefully, because he was seriously offended.
Dan’s estranged son Phil, who has found religion in his adult life, also decides to make the trip, because God told him to go to Thailand, and so the unlikely trio of Dan, Mick, and Phil travel to Thailand to rescue Charlie, a process that is easier said than done, especially when they discover that the prisoner being held in the Thai prison isn’t Charlie at all, but a woman who had stolen Charlie’s identification. Charlie, they learn, is holed up deep in the jungle, surrounded by murderous drug dealers, superstitious natives, and opium plants galore.
Dan, Mick, and Phil venture into this dangerous and unsettling world with the improbable task of somehow finding Charlie and then bringing her back to civilization.
Smoking Poppy is both a thrilling page turner, an adventure into the perilous jungles of Thailand, and an eye-opening drama about a father trying to get to know his adult children, wondering where things went wrong, and how two people who adored him when they were children seem to hate him now. Smoking Poppy is just as much about Dan “finding” his son Phil as it is about him finding his daughter Charlie.
The novel succeeds on both levels. Dan’s journey into the jungles of Thailand is reminiscent of Martin Sheen’s trek through Vietnam into Cambodia in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). There is high adventure as Dan, Mick, and Phil venture deep into an area of the world in which most men don’t return alive.
But my favorite part of Smoking Poppy is the internal journey taken by Dan, the one in which he grows to understand his adult children and his “best mate” Mick. And none of these things come easily for him.
When Dan reaches an epiphany at the end of the story and realizes what it means to be a father, the moment is particularly satisfying:
Break your heart one day? I wish I’d known then what I know now, and I could have gainsaid the old harridan. Your children break your heart every day. You only have to look at them and your heart shreds. They lacerate it. Pulverize it. And then they mend it for you, each and every day, with a gesture or a smile or a sly glance, just so that it can be shredded and wrecked all over again. And all over nothing.
That’s what it means to be a father. That’s my definition. A father is a person with a mashed heart and a wounded hand. And that’s perfectly normal.
I really enjoyed the four principal characters in this one. Dan is a flawed character who means well, very well, and oftentimes it’s painful to read through the scenes where he tries to communicate or help his son or daughter and fails. You want him to succeed.
Mick might be the most interesting character in the book. He’s this guy who Dan barely notices, but really considers himself to be Dan’s best mate. The fact of the matter is, Mick really cares about Dan, something that Dan in his closed-in world never noticed before. Mick serves as the driving force behind Dan’s mission to find Charlie. He’s constantly pushing Dan forward, helping him get through one ordeal after another, and he’s the voice that always says don’t give up. And he backs up his words with actions.
Dan’s son Phil is certainly an annoying character, and Joyce does a nice job making the reader relate to Dan’s frustrations over his son, like the way Phil always calls Dan “father” rather than “dad.” You just want to slug him. And yet, Phil loves his father, loves his family, and the single most satisfying moment in the book may be when we find out this fact, that Phil does love his dad, and we find out through Phil’s actions, when it’s revealed what he did to save his dad.
Charlie is also interesting, the strong, rebellious daughter of the family, who went off and got herself in a bind. It’s interesting because the plot of the book is all about finding and rescuing Charlie, and yet the story is more about Dan’s relationship with his son Phil and his friend Mick than it is about his relationship with his daughter.
Joyce also does a nice job fleshing out the supporting characters in the book, including some of the villagers, especially Nabao, the woman who cares for Charlie. Joyce also creates an unsettling villain in Jack, the drug lord they meet in the jungle, who oversees the village in which they find Charlie. Jack could easily kill them all in a heartbeat, and Dan and the others have to operate gingerly around him. He’s a very unnerving villain.
Smoking Poppy also enters the realm of fantasy, but on a peripheral level. Moments of spiritualism are intertwined with drug-induced hallucinations to create a world in the jungle that is as uncomfortable as it is unpredictable.
There’s a moment in the jungle where Dan encounters an entity, a force that is downright frightening.
It was madness, this entire trek. Preposterous. I lashed at the bamboo again, and my teeth started chattering, as if I was chilled. Sunlight dappled the rubbery leaves as a shape formed at the periphery of my vision, a shape that I took to be a bird or an animal. It was no more than a shadow, a silhouette even, but then the thing swooped down from the jungle canopy and started to close around me. It was like a heavy, damp cloak settling on my shoulders and pressing a great weight down on my lungs. I felt a rancid breath on my neck. There was corruption in the air and a sound like a veil tearing. I tried to lash the thing away and when my hand passed through it a moment of hideous panic followed. It was the loneliest thing I have ever experienced in my life.
Mick and Phil tell Dan that nothing physical had leapt onto him, and he realizes— or at least at this time believes— that it was just in his head. But this is not an isolated incident, as there are ghosts and spirits in the jungle just as assuredly as there are men with guns growing opium.
Smoking Poppy is an engaging novel, the tale of one man’s physical journey into the perilous jungles of Thailand to rescue his adult daughter, but the more satisfying story is that of his emotional journey, where he discovers what it means to be a father and a friend.
It’s never too late to discover a gem. Sure, Smoking Poppy was written a decade ago, but this novel by Graham Joyce is every bit as satisfying today as it was then. It’s a highly recommended read.