“SMOKING POPPY” – GRAHAM JOYCE
(reviewed by Steve Rudd)
Essentially the story of a man on a mission to rescue his estranged daughter from an exceedingly sticky situation in Thailand, ‘Smoking Poppy’ revolves around a guy called Dan from the Midlands who flies over to southeast Asia in order to save his girl, Charlie, from potential execution as a result of her having been caught smuggling drugs. Or so it would seem.
While the story opens in a pub, it’s not long before Dan, his pal Mick, and his son Phil find themselves winging their anxious way towards Chiang Mai via Bangkok. All three of the guys are out of their depths, unused to the culture, not to mention the extreme heat of Thailand. Upon arranging to see Charlie in prison, the plot takes an extraordinary twist which duly sees the men plunge into hill tribe territory near the border with Myanmar.
What transpires is a genuinely exhilarating story that just as readily reads as a travelogue, Joyce’s keen eye for circumstantial detail going a long way to help the reader imagine just how far away from civilisation the men unwittingly find themselves.
It turns out that Charlie is being held captive in a small village surrounded by fields of opium, the poppy of which wields the potential to be transformed into heroin or morphine. Worryingly, Charlie’s travelling partner has disappeared without a trace.
Woefully addicted to the pipe, Charlie’s in no fit state to leave the village… at least not for a few days. The men begrudgingly settle into the village lifestyle, making more enemies than friends by attracting the attention of the Thai gang in charge of harvesting the poppy. Naturally, the scene is set for a succession of nail-biting showdowns as Dan and pals decide which of the locals they can and can’t trust.
‘Smoking Poppy’ reels the reader in from the very beginning, its plot as strong as the principal characters. Joyce, author of ‘Indigo’ and ‘The Tooth Fairy’, never minces his words, fearlessly throwing his characters into genuinely hair-raising scenarios for kicks, knowing that readers will wind up with no choice but to read on. Ironically, ‘Smoking Poppy’ proves to be as addictive as the poppy of the title.
The lush landscapes of northern Thailand serve as the most spellbinding backdrop imaginable, with Joyce’s prose benefitting immensely from the intense detail populating his most descriptive passages. However, it’s his characters that drive the story. Indeed, it was with welling tears that I tore down the final page, moved by Dan’s love for Charlie, and his realisation that ‘Your children break your heart every day.’ It’s a tough lesson to learn, though it’s not without its rewards…