Review: The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs



Paris 1928. Lucia, the talented and ambitious daughter of James Joyce, is making a name for herself as a dancer, training with many famous dancers of her day and moving in social circles which throw her into contact with Samuel Beckett. Convinced she has clairvoyant powers, she believes her destiny is to marry Beckett, but the overbearing shadow of her father threatens this vision. Caught between her own ambitions and desires, and her parents’ demands, Lucia faces both emotional and psychological struggles that attract the attention of pioneer psychoanalyst Dr Jung.

The Joyce Girl is an incredible novel about the daughter of James Joyce: a fictionalised exploration of the life of Lucia Joyce. She is a young woman obsessed with dance – she has an obvious talent and initially seems destined for great success. However, she is also her father’s muse and he likes her to dance for him in a particular way, thus keeping her trapped when she needs to spread her wings.

Lucia becomes quite fixated with the idea of marriage after hearing it said that marriage is how women become free. This leads to her to become easily infatuated with men who show even remote interest in her – Lucia would quickly begin fantasising about their wedding, her future life with her suitor, and it becomes so real to her that she sadly doesn’t really see the reality of what some of these men want from her. Samuel Beckett is a fascinating character in this novel but his attraction to Lucia causes him to lead her on somewhat when he isn’t certain of his intentions towards her.

Lucia is taken advantage of by men throughout her life – some men more so than others – but she never really has a normal, stable man in her life at any point. From the moment she was born she was her father’s muse and had to mould herself into whatever he wanted her to be; her brother is a vile man who does whatever he wants with Lucia to suit his own ends. Even as an adult Lucia identifies herself as the daughter of a genius, she never really sees herself in her own right.

The theme of identity runs throughout this novel; the idea that you’re not only who you feel yourself to be but can become moulded, or even forced, to be what the people around you want you to be, or what they already assume you to be. Lucia is pulled in numerous directions and it’s quite apparent that in the end something would have to give. Heartbreakingly for Lucia as her mental health begins to crack under the strain yet another man in her life is able to take full advantage and get rid of her so that he can then shine. 

It is obvious throughout this book that James Joyce loved his daughter, that he wanted what was best for her and he did stick by her. However, it’s also quite apparent that his obsession with writing and needing Lucia to dance for him in order to inspire him was unhealthy for her. It became a tragic situation.

This novel got under my skin far more than I expected it to. I found that once I started reading I didn’t want to put the book down. Lucia Joyce is such a fascinating person and it was great to learn more about her. It saddened me to see how she was never going to escape her father’s name and her brother’s control – between them they seemed to keep her trapped as a child, never to be allowed to be her own person and inevitably this drove her to a kind of madness. Her obsession with dance and wanting to be perfect led to some of her issues but her home life seemed to have a far greater impact. It’s heartbreaking to read of the way men just discarded her as if she were nothing, even though her more manic moments must have been difficult for a man to cope with at that time, it’s still really tough to read.

It shocked me how many women in this novel end up being locked away in asylums because they went mad, or were diagnosed schizophrenic. A poignant moment that I’ve already referred to when Zelda Fitzgerald tells Lucia about her freedom to dance as a married woman and then soon after we learn that Zelda has been committed. These women didn’t really have freedom at all. Their love of dance led to them being somewhat obsessed with it but the way that their husbands / fathers / brothers wanted to keep them on a tight rein led to the women being torn in two different directions. There is no wonder their mental health began to decline. I would imagine that being locked in an asylum and unable to dance would have been the final thing that broke their spirit in the end.

The Joyce Girl is a breathtakingly beautiful novel; it will linger in your mind long after you’ve finished reading.  I rated this novel 5 out of 5 and highly recommend it.

The Joyce Girl is due to be published on 16th June in the UK and can be pre-ordered now.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher, Impress Books, in exchange for an honest review.


I’m the blog tour for The Joyce Girl and have a brilliant guest post about mental health by Annabel Abbs to share with you on 15th June so please look out for that.


23 thoughts on “Review: The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

    • Thank you. It’s a fascinating novel for so many reasons – I knew it would be one I enjoyed but it was even better than I expected. I think it may even end up being one of my favourite reads of the year! Let me know what you think when you’ve read it. x

  1. Having studied this period, the other shocking issue is that by any modern-day standards a lot of the women who were committed weren’t suffering from any kind of mental instability – other than committing the overarching crime of being awkward or difficult wives…

    • Hi there – you are absolutely right! When I reviewed all the evidence on Lucia and discussed it with a psychiatric friend, we came to the conclusion that her condition may have started with what today is termed ‘anger management’ (NB something anyone in her situation might have experienced and which I’ve also had!). She was given the label of ‘schizophrenic’ but her biographer thinks she never had schizophrenia. So sad…

      • It definitely felt that Lucia was very stifled in her life, and so often taken advantage of, and and that this led to her having the angry, sometimes manic, outbursts, which then led to her family being able to make out that she was unstable. To commit someone like her, and for her not to be able to keep dancing, would have been the last straw – I would imagine that in the end her spirit was broken and she had no fight left in her. It’s heartbreaking to think someone having what we’d now see as a normal reaction to what had happened to her was committed and diagnosed with schizophrenia. I finished reading the book a week ago and I still keep thinking of her.

    • I agree – I think in many cases women were suffering from being stifled by the men in their lives, but ultimately anyone who is oppressed by someone else and then committed to an asylum, where they have no freedom at all, would sadly end up mentally ill from the stress of it all.

      • However, the shocking truth is that many women who were committed were not suffering anything worse than being a bit stroppy – and the medical profession knew it and colluded. ‘Hysterical illness’ was the blanket term used…

  2. This is an insightful review and I really enjoyed reading it! I have just finished reading ‘To Dance in the Wake’ which is also about Lucia, I wanted to learn more and your review has definitely pointed me in the right direction 🙂 . Her life is as interesting as it is heartbreaking, but as you say in your review she certainly lived under the shadow of her father. It is sad to think that had she been born in a more understanding time things could have turned out differently.

    • Thank you so much. I hope you enjoy The Joyce Girl as much as I did – it’s one of those novels that has really stayed with me and I definitely want to read more about Lucia when I get the chance. Her life is fascinating but so very sad. I’m going to look out for the book you mentioned.

      • I am sure I will, put the order in on Amazon yesterday! An interesting and sad story and there isn’t a huge amount of information about her as a person, most of it seems to centre around her relationship with her father.

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