Joy Stephens would appear to have everything to live for – she’s a successful City lawyer, about to be made a partner at the age of 33 – but she is planning to commit suicide before the day is out. When we first meet her, we get an insight into the sorts of fractures that riddle Joy’s ostensibly perfect life, as she arrives home in the early hours to find Dennis, her husband of five years, with the couple’s regular Thursday-night call girl, whom Dennis was supposed to cancel this week.
It soon becomes clear that Joy fell from the platform at that evening’s ceremony announcing her promotion, and now lies in a coma. The novel alternates between chapters following Joy through her final day, and the first-person interviews given to the law firm’s counsellor by four other characters: Joy’s colleague Peter; her academic husband, Dennis; personal trainer Samir; and Joy’s PA, Barbara.
Joy is Jonathan Lee’s second novel (following 2010’s Who Is Mr Satoshi?), and it’s a quite superb piece of work. Take the characterisation, for example: Lee uses four first-person voices, and sharply differentiates them all; their respective owners come right off the page (as does Joy herself). Moreover, though they may seem easy enough to categorise at first, all the main characters reveal a subtle complexity as the novel goes on: Dennis may come across as just a long-winded eccentric, but his reaction to Joy’s fall suggests a steelier side; Barbara may be an unpleasant gossip-monger, but we also see how she has been frustrated by circumstance. Even the loathsome Peter, who has very few redeeming qualities, elicits a certain amount of empathy as Lee portrays a man who found his niche and then has it taken away.
Lee’s book is also simply a great pleasure to read: its prose is a finely-tuned instrument, discursive and sharp by turns, but always with an irresistible flow. Its plot takes unexpected turns which undermine some of the assumptions one has likely been forming about what is going to happen and why. As a result, the pages turn ever more furiously, no matter how much the ending is supposedly pre-ordained.
Perhaps more than anything else, Joy strikes me as a novel about ambition, finding a place in life, and dealing with what happens when that place proves unstable. So, Joy has achieved success, but not without sacrifice; and now various factors combine to make her question whether everything has been worth it. Peter might be said to have played the career game more cannily than Joy, but even he is insufficiently prepared when life moves on. Samir has tried to make something of himself, but ends up caught in his own ritualistic behaviour patterns. The book’s title becomes a pun, as joy proves a quality as elusive (though nonetheless glimpsed occasionally) as Joy the person is to the other characters considering her personality. But the strengths of Joy the novel are far from elusive, and this fascinating patchwork character study signals that Jonathan Lee is a name to follow.