Book club: Joy

Hannah Langworth on a novel that revels in the dark side of City law


By Jonathan Lee

William Heinemann, 2012

Joy Stephens, an exhausted City lawyer, arrives home to find her front door ajar and strange noises coming from the living room, where she discovers her husband - and another woman. Many explanations might suggest themselves, but the shock value, black comedy and emotional rawness of the surprising scenario Jonathan Lee unfolds in the opening sections set the tone for the rest of his second novel, the follow-up his successful 2010 debut, Who is Mr Satoshi?

Joy, we quickly discover, has a death wish and, on the day that she's promoted to partner at fictional City law firm Hanger, Slyde & Stein, falls forty feet onto a marble floor, putting her into a coma. Joy's exploration of her feelings about her life in the run-up to this incident forms the novel's core but, as well as Joy's version of events, we're also presented with equally restless and often unhappy accounts from her PA, her personal trainer, her husband, and a colleague, who is also her former lover. Joy orbits in varying degrees of significance in all of their lives but each one, like Joy herself, seems to have lost any ability they might have once have had to experience the emotion her name represents.

All of Lee's narrators are all realistic and recognisable cocktails of flaws, frustrations and the odd endearing quality. However, the sections of the novel closely focused on the ecology of a City law firm stand out, which is only to be expected as, before deciding to pursue a literary career full-time, Lee was a lawyer at a leading City firm. The law firm vocabulary he sprinkles liberally into Joy - "fee earner", "senior associate forum", "multi-jurisdictional disclosure exercises" - is pitch perfect, and he's able to bring quasi-anthropological analysis to his depictions of these institutions' ways of working and social mores. Lee describes with panache, for instance, the sensation junior City lawyers experience of, "waiting, tense and wild, BlackBerries at the ready, for our next call to war", and also the work itself, which could perhaps mean producing beautifully indexed lever-arch files destined never to be looked at, or late night memos with titles like "Frozen Meats: the Regulatory Landscape", the whole experience, claims Lee, "a unique combination of mundanity and stress".

This intimate knowledge of law firm life provides Lee with rich comic pickings. If he's to be believed, PAs might be found creating graphical representations of comedy workplace statistics - "percentage employee income spent on forgetting" (that is, alcohol), "percentage secretary who think Italian = better lover", while trainees "spend half their days wishing upon their bosses nasty unnatural deaths involving exotic stationery products found in the fifth-floor reprographics room". Funniest of all is the "Make Law Fun Day" for "underprivileged kids", complete with, thanks to "a recent Madagascan case", real "tropical wildlife", which proceeds to go on walkabout around the office with predictable consequences. Lee's expertise and sharp eye also, however, make for some sudden moving insights amid the satire and gross-out moments: Joy, says her husband Derek, is "trapped by the dark treasure that is her own talent, and the more her employers recognise that talent through pay and praise, making her feel it is lived up to not lost, the more fenced off she feels from that feral beast Failure, and the harder it is for her to find a way out."

This complex relationship Joy has with the identity and acclaim her apparently successful career has given her is the heart of the plot. However, as the reader slowly discovers, her unhappiness has been sharpened by, among other things, a specific traumatic event in her past that resembles an extremely high-profile and notorious real-life saga. And, intriguingly, her climactic fall is not dissimilar to a fatal incident involving a young lawyer at Lee's former firm in 2007. There are other references to real life events too, most notably the weaving of the novel's shocking conclusion around the January 2006 appearance - and death - of a juvenile female bottlenose whale in the River Thames near Battersea.

The references to these actual events pushes, at times, what would already be a dark novel into the territory of at best extremely uncomfortable reading and at worst transgressive voyeurism. Lee's covering of real and deep tragedy with a veneer of often gruesome black comedy stays, however, just about on the right side of bad taste, but he certainly can't be accused of sugar-coating the realities of a career in the City, or the inevitable disappointments and abasements of adult life.

However, despite the impression Joy gives in places, some people, including some City lawyers, are content with their lot, and Lee's novel, to be fair, is not entirely without the positive sensation to which the title alludes. There's some happiness here - a new child, a generous and thoughtful surprise gift, a realisation that there are people in London who are "kind in their own weird little ways". But these are just momentary flashes of light in an overwhelmingly melancholic, disturbing and, sad to say, frequently realistic read.