Surprised by Joy is C.S. Lewis's account of his early life, and his conversion to Christianity. Lewis is probably best known for his Narnia sequence of books. The Narnia chronicles are one of the great fantasy fiction sequences, and although easily readable and enjoyable whatever your religious beliefs they are more understandable, and probably have greater impact when viewed from a Christian perspective.

As such Surprised by Joy is a fascinating account of the story behind Narnia, and the influences on the life of its author. Whether or not you have religious beliefs, and whether or not you're a fan of C.S. Lewis though, there are plenty of reasons to make time to read this book. Ultimately it is a story of human endurance and resilience against the evils of life.

Lewis and his older brother initially led a happy life in Northern Ireland. Their mother's death when Lewis was a boy was to cast a devastating shadow over their young lives. Exiled to a series of terrible schools, there are some truly shocking revelations here. It's hardly surprising that Lewis lost his faith when his life was set against a background of physical, mental, and probably a degree of sexual abuse. Initially he found refuge in learning, and then the company of a few close friends. Finally he re-defined what he needed in his life, and found God.

The reader may, or may not, believe in God themselves; but Lewis' path to conversion, and his analysis of himself will strike a chord in anyone whose life has at some point reached a nadir. It's hard not to sympathise and empathise with Lewis, and to have enormous admiration for someone who managed to live such a positive life after enduring such darkness.

There is a link between Surprised by Joy and some recent reads - Dorothy L. Sayers Strong poison (for an earlier review see here), Dodie Smith's The town in bloom, and Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. All four books are testament to survival after the First World War. Curiously the War plays a relatively small part in Surprised by Joy - Lewis was already too closed in on himself following traumatic earlier events, but his struggle to find his place in the world following the war, is, I think, at least partly due to his wartime experiences. There are certainly elements here that reflect Vera Brittain's experiences, and the experiences of the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey, and Harriet Vane, struggling to find a new place in a strangely-changed post-war society; as are the bright young women of Dodie Smith's Town in bloom.

The book itself had less impact on me than it did when I first read it. And the writing doesn't always flow as easily as Lewis' fictional writing does. Nevertheless it is a fascinating read whether you want to know more about the author of Narnia, are looking for spiritual direction, or just want some solidarity in a crisis.

The Sunday Times described it as a "spiritual thriller", it most certainly is that, but it is also so much more.


Ed said…
I have not read this, but I have read the Narnia Chronicles. This sounds like it would be worth reading. I have reread the Narnia Chronicles as an adult, and I noticed that in the battle scenes, there were bits which seemed to be a reflection about his feelings of going into battle.
Margaret Jones said…
Think you're completely right about that, Ed. Certainly reading "Surprised by Joy" I could see where some of the Narnia stories had their origins. Fascinating. There's also a very good biography of C.S. Lewis by A.N. Wilson, which fills in a lot about his background and influences.

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