The time is out of joint, as the follow-up to a popular novelistic debut brings a slightly darker edge to its fablelike whimsy.
Having earned a best-selling readership in both the U.S. and her native Britain with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), Joyce returns with an even less likely but more ambitious piece of fictional fancy. The protagonist is 11-year-old Byron, a reflective and innocent schoolboy who becomes overly concerned when his best friend, James, tells him that two seconds will be added to this leap year to somehow even things out. After his mother assures him that “[w]hen it happens you won’t notice. Two seconds are nothing,” Byron responds, “That’s what nobody realizes. Two seconds are huge. It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening.” And with the addition of those two seconds—or not—something happens—or not. And whether or not something happens, everything changes. A veteran of the stage and a radio playwright before turning to fiction, Joyce specializes in the sort of insights that some find charming, others cloying and a style that could sometimes pass for fairy tale, other times for Young Adult (though those readers wouldn’t have much patience for her plotting). The novel alternates between chapters that follow what happens to Byron, his mother and their family (which the reader quickly realizes is more dysfunctional than Byron does) and ones that concern an adult sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder who resorts to menial labor when the British mental health system fails him. “No one knows how to be normal, Jim,” a social worker tells him. “We’re all just trying to do our best.” The two plot lines must inevitably intersect, but the manner in which they do will likely surprise even the most intuitive reader.
Many of those who loved the author's first novel should at least like her second.