Communications - Book Reviews: Owene Courtney

JOY: A Narnia Tale for Grownups

A review by Owene Courtney of:

JOY: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman who Captivated C. S. Lewis by Abigail Santamaria, paperback SPCK Publishing (June 16, 2016)

A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C.S. Lewis and Other Poems by Joy Davidman (author), Don W. King (Editor), paperback Eerdmans (May 6, 2015).

Reading a deeply compelling book can be a total body undertaking; where you sit, time of day, time of year all matter, complete the experience and remain a part of the memory of the book.  Abigail Santamaria's biography of Joy Davidman entitledJoy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman who Captivated C. S. Lewisis one of those books. In fact, I had to sit in the same spot every time I read to revisit the aura of the story. Santamaria's story of Joy, a Jewish girl from the Bronx, and her determination to captivate the man whose work had changed her life is not a simple love story, but a riveting quest for personal identity and ethos.

Santamaria has taken one of the most popular romances of the 20th century and unraveled the sweet late-life love affair of the creator of Narnia, re-weaving it into the story of a brilliantly feisty woman who stopped at nothing to get her man. With detective-type research, Santamaria carefully plumbs the depths of unpublished documents, revealing a virtual quest narrative of the story of Joy Davidman's life. Eighty percent of the book is the quest; Jack (as Lewis was called) only shifts his affections at the end of the book. In fact, Santamaria's telling of the story drags out the quest to the point that one wonders if they will ever get together!

Read in conjunction with A Naked Tree, a collection of Joy's love sonnets to C. S. Lewis as well as other poems edited by Don W. King, the reader discovers the poetic genius of Joy as well as the deep and complicated nature of her soul. One discovers a brilliant poet who struggled to channel her enormous passion for clarity of expression and simultaneously an understanding of her search for the essence of life and love. A study of just her poetry, much of which was previously unpublished, would reveal a conflicted soul searching for meaning and peace who first finds Christianity and then her soul mate. 

 In a recent issue of the New York Times, an article entitled "American Poets, Refusing to Go Gentle, Rage Against the Right" made clever allusion to Dylan Thomas's poem "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night." "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," the Thomas poem continues. The article discusses the rise of sharply political poetry these days as writers "are responding to this turbulent moment in the country's history." Likewise, Joy's early days as a poet raged. She was a radical and an active member of the New York literary and communist circles in the 1930's and 40's. Poetry, she said, should "incite indignation, courage, and hope through beauty, truth, and ideas." As her search began she became an atheist, then a practitioner of Dianetics, and finally, with the same enthusiasm with which she embraced the Communist party, she converted to Christianity.

Santamaria details the story of this complicated woman as she struggled with the meaning of life, using the written word as a weapon and allowing her "passions to overrule moral codes and conventions" until she discovered the transcendent grace of Christianity. Joy began her quest as a free spirited, idealistic intellectual who adopted one cause after another, ultimately finding peace when she discovered C. S. Lewis, her mentor, intellectual and spiritual partner, and ultimately her lover.  But according to Santamaria, Joy's journey was fraught with complicated personalities and relationships and a desire for Lewis that was great enough to make her delusionary…to the point that one often wonders if she is a credible narrator of her own story!

Perhaps the best explanation of Joy Davidman and her journey comes, not surprisingly, from Lewis's book The Four Loves, which he wrote once they were finally together.  "Our need for God is revealed in our growing awareness that our whole being…is one vast need, incomplete, preparatory, empty yet cluttered, crying out for him who can untie things that are now knotted together and tie up things that are still dangling loose." It was in her relationship with Jack that Joy's loosely dangling life was tied up.

The best description of Joy and Jack's relationship, once it was finally consummated, also comes from Jack in a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths. "It is nice to have arrived at all this by something which began in Agape, proceeded to Philia, then became Pity, and only after that, Eros. As if the highest of these, Agape, had successfully undergone the sweet humiliation of an incarnation" thus the four loves!

Possibly the greatest compliment of the book comes from Walter Hooper, personal secretary to C. S. Lewis and editor of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, who said, "This brilliantly researched biography has changed me for good. Until I read this book, I could never take Joy Davidman to my heart; she now stands before me as real and believable as anyone I know…it is no wonder C. S. Lewis loved her so much."       

Don't miss these books. Whether you are a C. S. Lewis scholar or not, Abigail Santamaria has "written a luscious Narnia tale for grownups," and A Naked Tree is its perfect complement.