The Limits of Enchantment

The Limits of Enchantment

4.5 2
by Graham Joyce

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Everything Fern Cullen knows she's learned from her Mammy — and none of it's conventional. Taught midwifery at an early age, Fern grows up as Mammy's trusted assistant in a small English village and learns through experience that secrets are precious, men can't be trusted, hippies are filthy and people should generally mind their own business.
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Everything Fern Cullen knows she's learned from her Mammy — and none of it's conventional. Taught midwifery at an early age, Fern grows up as Mammy's trusted assistant in a small English village and learns through experience that secrets are precious, men can't be trusted, hippies are filthy and people should generally mind their own business.
But when one of Mammy's patients allegedly dies from a potion prescribed to induce abortion, the town's people rally against her outdated methods, and Mammy ends up hospitalized, due to a bad fall and a broken heart. Now the county is threatening eviction if Fern can't come up with the overdue rent, and a bunch of hippies and a woman with hoop earrings with a mysterious connection to Mammy seem to be the only people with any answers. As Fern struggles to save her home and Mammy's good name, everything around her begins to transform, and she soon uncovers a legacy spotted with magic.
The Limits of Enchantment is at once a story of two women: one with a deep past and one who finds her history in the other. It is a tale of midwifery, alchemy, magic, truth and identity, from an author with the extraordinary ability to blend literature and fantasy with surprising dexterity.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Shaped by reverence for the feminine mystique and leavened with a dash of fantasy, this enthralling novel from British author, Joyce (The Facts of Life) offers a poignant appraisal of an English household steeped in folk traditions and its uneasy transition to contemporary times. Although it's 1966, Mammy Cullen, a beloved midwife in rural Hallaton, still dispenses a kind of herbal medicine that women have practiced since time immemorial. But times are changing and prejudices are building. When one of her remedies appears to kill a patient, the locals turn on Mammy. Her practice falls to Fern, her adopted daughter and apprentice, who soon finds herself confronting contemporary reality in several forms: Arthur, an amorous biker with marriage on his mind; an intrusive commune of feckless hippies who settle next door; and a devious landlord who schemes to evict her from her cottage. Fern's dilemma over whether to pack it all in under these pressures or contrive ways to continue with hedgerow medicine invests the tale with both pathos and humor. Joyce tackled some of this story's themes in his 1992 debut, Dark Sister, but his treatment here is more seasoned and sensitive. Likewise, his ability to write convincingly from a female point of view only improves, and Fern is one of his best realized characters to date. This novel's old-fashioned sense of values and heartwarming depiction of customs of home and community are sure to charm fans and new readers alike. Agent, Chris Lotts. (Feb. 22) Forecast: While of the same quality as The Facts of Life, which won the 2003 World Fantasy Award, this literary fantasy is unlikely to receive the same "best novel" genre nominations because it's too close to mainstream. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Daughter of the local wise woman has to step up to the plate when Ma falls ill. For master fantasist Joyce (The Facts of Life, 2003, etc.), the business of keeping traditions alive is not exactly fraught with fairies and spelldust, but it's a grotty and human-bound affair-and fascinating nonetheless. In a tiny British village in the 1960s, the winds of modernity are upsetting the livelihood of the Cullen women. The elder Cullen, Mammy, is a midwife of near-legendary repute, though her business has been falling off lately due to the National Health Service providing free midwives fully versed in the more soulless modern techniques. After a local girl dies from an abortifacient administered by Mammy, the townspeople turn against her and an attack by a mysterious assailant puts her in the hospital. But while Mammy's stern, wise, and sarcastic demeanor casts a shadow over the whole story, this is really about her teenaged daughter, Fern, who is forced to take over, in effect, the family business-of midwifery, herbology, small sewing jobs, baking, and caretaking of local secrets-after Mammy is laid up. Joyce has a warm touch with Fern, giving her a tough, antisocial exterior that belies the utter confusion and roiling adolescent agonies that plague her narration. Trying to keep her and Mammy from eviction, figuring out how to continue in Mammy's footsteps without her around (if she even wants to), dealing with the local hippies and trying (maybe) to lose her virginity-it's a lot for one girl to handle. Darker shadows unfurl after Mammy imparts to Fern the roster of local secrets she's been privy to in her profession, and malicious figures begin to gather, trying to ensure that Fern will keepher mouth shut. This is an uncommonly powerful tale about knowledge and the things swept aside in the rush to the future. Thick with ominous mystery but never sacrificing its characters' integrity in deference to atmosphere or plot.
From the Publisher
"A master storyteller."

Kirkus Reviews

"Joyce delve[s] deeply into the human soul and examine[s] it with surgical precision, while keeping its magic alive."

Rocky Mountain News

"[An] enthralling novel...shaped by reverence for the feminine mystique and leavened with a dash of fantasy."

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Product Details

Washington Square Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Limits of Enchantment

A Novel
By Graham Joyce


Copyright © 2005 Graham Joyce
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743463447

Chapter One

Mammy pressed her ear to Gwen's distended pink pot, and everyone in the room had to hush up. That was Gwen of course, ready to split like a fruit, and Mammy also of course, and Gwen's friend Clarrie, who stood with her arms folded and a ciggie between her lips and a stick of ash hanging over the bed, and me. And we all listened.

"Make it easier if you told me, Mammy," Gwen said, but Mammy flapped an arm through the air, hush up, and pressed her ear closer to the spot she'd shown me just north-northwest of Gwen's navel.

Mammy straightened her back and turned away from Gwen. "Can't tell."

"I know you can!" Gwen protested, running her chafed hands over her own massive belly. "You'd a looked me in the eye. So now I know."

"She knows, right enough," Clarrie croaked, without removing the ciggie from her mouth, then a tiny cough made the stick of ash just miss the bed. "Old Mammy Cullen knows."

Mammy did know, but wouldn't let on. "Let's see what nature give us and be glad," Mammy always said.

But Gwen wasn't having that. "Oh Mammy, if I just knew, I could relax and this one would be out and it's not as if it will be any less loved either way."

Gwen had four brawling and bawling red-cheeked boys and desperately wanted a little girl to put a bit o' balance in the house. Mammy would listen and was usually right but she was not infallible so she never liked to say.

At last Clarrie took the cigarette out of her mouth. She expertly nipped the lighted end between a finger and a thumb callused from the canning factory and dropped the stub in her apron pocket. "Let the girl have a listen," she said.

My hand flew up, as it always did in these moments, to the three iron hair grips pinning my hair at the temple. Gwen mouthed at me like a fish, go on. Mammy wrinkled her nose and motioned me toward Gwen's swollen mound. I put my ear to the spot and listened hard. Then I got up and because the other two were hard at watching my lips, I touched my left earlobe.

"She thinks it's a girl, and I do, too," Mammy said, and Gwen started blubbering.

"But she ain't said a word!" Clarrie protested.

Mammy was more interested in scolding Gwen. "Now look at you, filling up! And where you going to be if I'm wrong?"

"You ain't never wrong, Mammy, they all say! Thank you, Mammy! Thank you so much! Oh I could die happy!"

"Die? You ain't going to die! And I'm offen wrong about it. Offen."

"She never said a bloody word!" Clarrie complained again, lighting up another Craven A and looking at me.

No, but we had our own way of speaking, and just as I'd touched my left earlobe I'd looked at Mammy for a response because I knew we'd both heard trouble. Mammy wiped her forefingers together, just the once, to confirm the difficulty I'd picked up in the heartbeat. There all right, but too flat. Trouble. Oh dear for everyone, and I'm going: stay calm now, Fern, stay calm.

Gwen was right in that she relaxed immediately and within half an hour after Mammy's pronouncement that little baby girl was inching her way out. But where we all wanted to see her boxing the air with her tiny pink fists, something was wrong. The baby had the cord around her neck, like a noose, and you could tell she was starved of oxygen. Mammy got her fingers between neck and cord and quickly freed her, but there was so little.

"Flat," I said to Mammy in an underbreath, not wanting Gwen to hear.

But Clarrie sensed something and stepped round to look. Taking her ciggie from between her lips she blurted, "But she's so blue!"

"Blue?" said Gwen.

"Stand aside and shut it," Mammy said sharply to Clarrie. The baby was all out now, but limp. Mammy flicked its feet hard. Then she slapped it. "Sucker," she said to me, but softly. I rummaged in Mammy's bag and I found the fine-bore length of rubber tube and handed it to her.

"Is it all right? Tell me it's all right, Mammy," Gwen was saying, so I attended to her bleeding with swabs, more to distract her so that Mammy could do whatever she could. Mammy laid the baby down and stuck the tube down its throat and sucked hard. She spat into a bowl. Mammy slapped again, but the blue thing was still flat. Almost lifeless now. Almost nothing.

There was no hiding it. Clarrie had gone silent, and Gwen was paralyzed and I felt the flush of fear travel between us, and we all looked to Mammy. But Mammy seemed to be listening hard, and not at the baby but at the window. Her head was cocked slightly.

"Bucket of cold water, Fern, quick as you can. Use the rainwater barrel. Cold."

I didn't need telling twice. I raced downstairs, grabbed the nearest bowl to hand, and filled it with icy water from the rainwater tub outside and brought it back to the room. I knew what Mammy wanted, but Clarrie said, "They don't do that anymore. It'll ketch pneumonia."

Mammy ignored Clarrie and plunged the baby into the cold water. She held it under and brought it up again. Then she plunged it under again. "Linseed meal, Clarrie, go and get me some, sharpish. And you, Fern, gold dust."

Clarrie was gone for the linseed, but before I left the room I heard a tiny cough, like the spluttering of the water pump when you primed it. The baby coughed. It made a tiny gasp. "Don't dawdle now, Fern."

I had to go down to Gwen's pantry and rummage about for mustard seed, which Mammy called "gold dust." I ground up the seed in a mortar and pestle I found in the kitchen. Before I'd finished, Clarrie--who lived in the next house--was back with her linseed meal. I took it from her and made the wet poultice then took it back up to the room.

Gwen had the baby with her now, wrapped tight in a towel. Mammy inspected my poultice, took the baby back from Gwen and unwrapped the towel. She smeared the yellow poultice all over the baby's back, then wrapped her in the towel again before handing her back to her mother. "She'll not get pneumonia," Mammy said pointedly, looking hard at Clarrie.

"Oh Mammy!" Gwen said. "It's the little girl I wanted. Will she be all right?"

Well even though the danger had passed, Mammy would never say anything would be all right because she told me nature was imperfect; but she was wise enough to know she had to behave now as if it would be. "Write her down," Mammy said to me. "Write down her time and her weight. Write down as Gwen has had a healthy little girl."

Mammy's precision in these things was her one concession to the bureaucrats who exiled her from her true calling. Though she herself couldn't read or write, and claimed to see no point in the practice, she was proud that I could. It was her way of showing to the other women that we, too, could keep records if records there must be. So I took out my notebook and I wrote: to Gwen Harding, daughter, eight pounds nine ounces, sixteen minutes past four pm, 4th February, 1966. And as an extra flourish of my own I wrote Full moon baby.

Gwen was lost in the moment of new motherhood. Her friend Clarrie was happy again, too. She puffed away at the fresh ciggie wedged between her teeth, manufacturing a new stick of ash. "They say as you're always right, Mammy. And you was right about that lickle gal, too."

I had tipped off Mammy, when I touched my left ear, that I heard it was a girl. That had confirmed it for Mammy enough to take a chance and tell Gwen, and I was pleased because after dozens and dozens of these I was getting nearly as good as Mammy, who'd taught me not to go by how they were carrying but by the heartbeat, because a girl will beat slower than a boy and after a while you can tell them apart long before you get to look what's between their legs. Though we hadn't known what you can never know, that in this case the slow heartbeat was caused by another thing altogether. But they--that is, Gwen and Clarrie and all the rest of them--never knew how we did it because it was just one of the many things we few kept to ourselves.

And we mostly did keep to ourselves. Which was why I was so surprised the next day.

Blowing up for a gale it was, rough February weather, though fine enough for washing, and the corner of a hung-out sheet flapped at me, like having a bite at my leg, so I snapped back at it and put it in its place. You don't let them talk at you, those flapping sheets. My tiny Hitachi transistor radio softly broadcast the pirate station Radio Caroline from the doorstep. Though the batteries were a price just to keep it going, I liked it on while I worked and sang along where I could. Not that Mammy liked the pop tunes. Not at all. Rubbish she called it. Rubbish and rot.

But I was singing away when there was a rustle behind a cotton sheet, and a dark shape, and I stopped singing and took a step back. I suddenly wished that Mammy were there. Then the sheet was snatched away to reveal a face, deadpan yet humorous under a head of soft copper-colored curls. It was Arthur McCann, so tall he slouched in his black leather motorcycle jacket. His drainpipe jeans were so blue I wondered how he got them so.

I turned my back on him and carried on hanging out. "You frit me. I was going to grab that garden fork."

"Take a joke, Fern. No harm meant." I remembered Arthur from school. His eyes were as blue as his jeans, and he blinked at me with delicate eyelashes. I checked the three iron grips holding my hair back, and from there my hand went to the hole in the elbow of my cardigan. "You'll catch it if Mammy finds you here. She'll be back from the village anytime now."

Arthur stepped from behind the sheet, and it flapped in the stiff breeze. "Can't keep hiding behind Mammy Cullen, Fern." He inched closer. I could smell beer on the wind. "Got to give some bloke a chance."

Arthur was a tough from the neighboring village of Hallaton. That's a mad place. There are things I could tell you about that village. I had a wooden clothes pin clenched between my teeth. "Chance? What chance?"

I reached up for the clothesline knowing my waist, hips and buttocks were all displayed for him. Though my back was turned, I could feel his ghost arms wanting to settle on my hips. Hussy, Mammy would call me, but I bent over my washing basket, flapped another sheet, stretched again as Arthur breathed over my shoulder. I sensed the moment when he was going to step nearer, so I blocked it by turning. "I don't want a Hallaton barmy. Anyway you're almost the same age as me, Arthur. I want an older man."

"What do you want an older man for? I'm in me prime, I am."

"You're twenty-one. That's not your prime. That's a boy. I want a man who can teach me things." I knew what he would say back to that, and Mammy would call that teasing, no mistake.

"I could teach you a thing or two." Arthur scratched his chin and blinked his white lashes.

I spun my back on him again, hanging out. Do I want him to touch me? I remember thinking. Do I?

"Youch!" went Arthur.

I turned quickly to see Arthur grasping the ham of his leg, up near the buttock. Behind him stood Mammy Cullen with her ash stick raised, threatening him with another blow. "Who said you could come in my garden?" Mammy roared, squinting at the boy with her slate gray eyes. "Who said as you could?"

"We was just talking!"

"Courting! You was courting!" I could see Mammy's huge bosom heaving up and down inside her coat. Her fat jowls manufactured a comical twitch, but her tobacco-leaf brown eyes were a-boil. "And you don't court a gal by sneaking up when her back is turned! We can do without that sort of courting. And you don't court without my say-so!"

"We was just talking, Mammy! No need to take a stick to me!"

"I'll fetch you another blow, my lad. And you wasn't talking, you Hallaton barmy! You was reaching out your hand, and I saw you from the gate there."

He rubbed the ham of his leg, but he was laughing. It hadn't stung him at all, and we all understood it. Though I knew from when I was a girl that Mammy didn't usually let fly with her stick with half measures. This was a game, lucky for Arthur, but she could turn. "Give a young bloke a break, Mammy."

"What?" Mammy roared. "You come in my house and garden, and I'll break my stick over you!"

"Mammy!" I shouted, laughing, too. She was too handy with that ash stick, and I didn't want this to go any further.

Arthur was nimble and strong, and he grabbed the stick off her and vaulted the garden gate. Mammy was old but she could shift, and she was after him. "Bye Fern!" he shouted, taunting, leaving the stick by the gate. He leaped on his motorbike and kicked it into life. Mammy picked up a clod of earth and let fly at him, but he was long gone, the drone of his bike already diminishing. "Get out of my garden you Hallaton ginger-arse, and don't come back!"

After she'd retrieved her stick, Mammy sat down on her garden bench, getting her breath back. I said nothing and finished the job of hanging out the washing. When I was done I sat beside Mammy on the garden bench. We stared ahead in silence. After a while Mammy's shoulders began to tremble. I stayed tight-lipped. Then Mammy snorted. "Ginger-arse," she guffawed, and I shrieked. "Hallaton barmy!" I said, and Mammy's broad shoulders quaked. "Ginger Hallaton barmy hare-chaser!" she said, then she hooted and slapped down her own knee as if it was rising of its own volition, and I howled with her and I was glad we lived far enough from the village so that no one would hear us.

You couldn't help it. Not really. Not when you thought about it.

Old Mammy Cullen was not my natural mother, but had taken me on as her own. So Mammy had told me, I had arrived as a mistake to a woman whose other children were already mature; and they in turn had no interest in taking on a child whose father was, in any event, not the same as their own. I never met my half brother and two half sisters. Mammy Cullen had lost a child of her own long, long before, and that left a hole in her life that yawned and howled until Mammy, already a long way into her fifties, saw a need to fill it again. That was in 1946. With the war just over Mammy had slipped the event past all registration. As I understand it, there was no authority at hand that considered it of enough significance to record the deed. It was a time when finding a warm hearth for a barely walking child was more pressing than writing names in some leather-bound ledger.

"I brung you in from the hospital," she told me, and I never questioned it.

Mammy had a hole to fill, and Mammy took me in. That's all it was. She loved me and treated me no better and no worse than if I had been her own. Which was to fight to make a warm house, with enough food on the table and clean clothes; and just one or two remembered thrashings with the ash stick; and love that came in the form of as much time as could ever be lavished on a child.

Mammy listened, Mammy answered, Mammy interpreted the universe for me. She had a habit of briefly rolling her eyes before offering her report on the world, always carefully explaining where that version might touch her neighbors' and where it might not. And since the day of my first period she had been plain with me what it was all for, and had fought to save me from the boys who appeared at the garden gate. Arthur McCann wasn't the first to be chased away by Mammy Cullen. Though again I thought Mammy had been too interfering, and said so.

"I can look after myself, Mammy."

"I know that. But one of them will come along, and you'll fall on your back for him. I can't hold them off forever. It's against nature. You'll just fall over."

"No I shan't."

"You shall. Don't matter how tough you think you are. He'll stand there and he'll find a cotton loose in your apron and he'll pull it and pull it and you'll let him and the next thing you know you'll be shivering and on your back in the grass and you'll love it and think yourself clever for what's done. That's how it works. Just don't get yourself knocked up. And I've shown you how."

She had shown me, too. But then Mammy had the skill of reckoning in a way that left me for dead. Take away the upper of the eleven-to-eighteen rule from the number of days in the shortest o' your last six bleeds and take away the lower from the number of days of the longest of your prior six bleeds. If your last bleeds were twenty-six to thirty-one days in length, keep your man away with a stick between the eighth day (which is twenty-six take away eighteen, ain't it?) until day twenty (which be thirty-one take away eleven, ain't it?) on month seven. There. And you should be safe enough. Though you might also use your bit of sponge and vinegar.

"Arthur's got no bad in him."

"I know that, too. But what will you do when I'm gone?"

"You've got plenty of juice left."

"You say that, but I was in the village paying the damned electricity bill this morning, and I had a jolt all up my spine and through my chest. Turned me over it did."


"No you soft lump. Old age. I'm seventy-seven years old, and I know when I'm being called."

I stood up and turned away. I didn't want her to see the tears squeezing. But you could hide nothing from Mammy. Nothing. Never ever ever.

"You'll be all right, my little chaffinch," she said.

For a while there wasn't a breath of wind in the air. Then a breeze got exercised from nowhere, whipping the sheets high on the washing line, snapping them at us viciously. We both listened to it for a moment.

"You shall have to be," Mammy said.

Copyright (c) 2005 by Graham Joyce


Excerpted from The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce Copyright © 2005 by Graham Joyce.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Graham Joyce's books include The Facts of Life, which won the 2003 World Fantasy Award, Smoking Poppy, Indigo (a New York Times Notable Book of 2000) and The Tooth Fairy. He is a four-time recipient of the British Fantasy Award and winner of the French Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire. He lives in Leicester, England, with his wife and two children.

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