Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines
Elizabeth Baines writes haunting, precise yet fluid prose like a poet:
On the baby’s ﬁrst birthday the Smarties on the cake went frilly round the edges. The ﬁrst sign of odd things happening.
No one took it seriously.
He said it was magic. (He; he doesn’t have a name, not here, not in my head.) `I told you,’ he said afterwards, `things would start happening now you and I have met.’
`Magic,’ said Danny too, four years old and excited, waiting in an agony of impatience for the start of the birthday tea in the garden, though never in any doubt that things would go as planned, or that birthday teas would go on happening, and Daddy always come to join them in time.
And, this time, he did. He came round the side of the house, Daddy, my husband, ducking under the honeysuckle and coming to kiss us all, smelling faintly of the lab, that
sharp high chemical smell.
He was a scientist, my husband. He had a rational explanation. He looked at the Smarties and grinned. Lovely teeth, he had, not a single ﬁlling, and naturally curly hair.
The kinks of it glistened in the sun. It came back to me then, all the reasons I loved my husband.
`See,’ said Danny, pointing the funny way he did with his left middle ﬁnger, `they’re like little mince pies.’
And they were, each sweet surrounded by a perfect row of frills. My husband looked at them and laughed.
`Osmosis,’ I think he said, I wasn’t in a state to remember the actual word.
Something about things running, their contents seeping through their skins, leaving themselves behind. At any rate, he said I must have put them on when the icing was too wet.
Of course. Because of what had happened, I hadn’t been in a state to judge the drying time of icing.
But it was odd. Why, for instance, if things had melted, had the colours not run?
I cut the cake. I doled them out, the magic Smarties. A piece for my husband, and one for each child.
And the blackbird pipped conﬁdently, as if that garden and those hedges would always be there for him to call across; and there we sat, husband and wife and two-point-four children, point-four being the child we might have had if certain chemical chances in our bodies had or hadn’t occurred, and which we’d never have now, now things had started to happen.
Uncertainty and naming are prominent themes in the novel – we begin to organize and classify our external and internal worlds by naming items, people and experiences. This allows us to define ourselves as separate and gives us the illusion of power. But by separating ourselves off from our environment in this way we also allow the possibility of our own isolation and marginalization. In separating the world into a variety of others, by the arbitrary act of naming, we also can begin to view our own personal alienation.
Some characters, including the young mother who narrates the story in Too Many Magpies, remain unnamed throughout the length of the novel.
Magpies and other birds, including owls (death) are constant reference points in the narrative. The magpie’s obsession with shiny things is symbolic of our tendency to chase after false ideas or perceptions, to be over-concerned with the surface of things. When the magpie comes into our lives it can be a reminder that we should re-evaluate our priorities.
The narrator of Too Many Magpies begins her story in limbo; she has yet to sort out the rational from the irrational in her thinking – what is natural attraction (good teeth, perhaps), and what, on the other hand, is enchantment, the experience of being bewitched? Throughout her existential journey, though obviously depressed, she maintains a quirky sense of humour, quite clearly seeing the funny side of the time they avoided eating eggs for over a year because of the cholesterol content.
Are we, as individuals, in control of our environment and our place in it or are we blown hither and thither by fate or chance?
The narrator is deeply influenced by a masculine autocracy; she has absorbed and constantly repeats her scientific husband’s seemingly rational mantras. But once she begins her affair with the unnamed lover, she cleaves to his beliefs and outlook on life. One of the main questions of the continuing narrative is whether or not she will escape the over-bearing influence by these others. If she will ever find the space and time to give birth to herself.
There is a little-suspected twist towards the novel’s conclusion, which lifts the heart, like a musical interlude, and reminds us that, despite appearances, our world is not a place for dualities.
Baines has a unique voice and it will, undoubtedly, be worth following up on anything she writes. This book is only 123 pages long, but bursting with ideas and surprises and humanity. It is touching and the emotional life of the narrator lingers in the memory long after the final sentences have faded. Highly recommended.
The above review forms part of her current Virtual Book Tour.
The review copy of Too Many Magpies was sent to me by Salt Publishing.