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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines

Elizabeth Baines Virtual Blog Tour commenced last week with an interview on Sue Guiney’s Blog. Next week she will be with Nuala Ni Chonchuir. But today she is with me.

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.

Elizabeth Baines was born in South Wales and lives in Manchester. She is the prizewinning author of prose fiction and plays for radio and stage. Too Many Magpies was published by Salt in 2009. Previously Salt published her collection of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World (2007) which was pronounced ‘a stunning debut collection’ (The Short Review). In October 2010 Salt will reissue her first, acclaimed novel The Birth Machine. She has been a teacher and is an occasional actor.
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.

4 Responses to “Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines”

  1. John Baker says:

    I asked Elizabeth Baines the following question:
    Sarah Salway is quoted on the front cover of Too Many Magpies, declaring that she found your novel: ‘Moving and compelling.’
    Do you wish to be ‘moving and compelling?’ Is that why you write, or do you have other, quite different motives?

    Elizabeth’s answer:
    Well, I was thrilled that Sarah thought that about the novel, because yes, I’d say those are my main aims for my writing. For me, the good novels are the ones I can’t put down, and which move me, either to tears or laughter, and if I can do that for readers with my own writing, then that will make me very happy. I do have questions about certain issues and ideas I want to explore and share through my writing – for instance, in this book I’m interested in our response to an apparently newly precarious world, and in the ways we think. But it seems to me that people will best engage with issues if they are moved and compelled by the story, and of course the way it’s told. A novel can certainly appeal to the intellect, but the level on which fiction primarily operates, I think, is that of the emotions.

  2. John Baker says:

    A follow up to my last question:
    Elizabeth, you say you are “interested in our response to an apparently newly precarious world,” which would suggest, in your ownership of the word ‘apparently’, that there is some doubt about the ‘new precariousness’ with which we are faced.
    This, in one way or another, has been the subject of much fiction, especially since the advent of the modernist movement and the death of god. I do believe there is evidence from ancient Greece and Rome that it was a concern way back then.
    Perhaps we can conclude that people feel this disassociation with themselves whenever there are large changes in the society in which they live?
    The Reformation must’ve caused some anxious moments.
    Do you see a qualitative difference in our present day alienation and that witnessed by our forebears?

    And Elizabeth Baines’ answer:
    Quite frankly, I don’t know the answer to this question! Well, not for sure, and I guess that’s partly why I wrote the novel, and why I use the word ‘apparently’. It’s a good question, and I am interested in it, but my main impetus for writing novels is to explore our emotional responses to such questions and the way it affects our relationships and lives. So the protagonist in Too Many Magpies is a woman who increasingly has this feeling, that the world is a newly precarious place, and this deeply affects who she marries and how secure her marriage is as a result, and how she relates to the charismatic stranger who comes along with an opposing view, ie that that’s all hooey and in fact you may as well relax about it all. The novel sets out to explore the consequences, in terms of relationships, and for her children.

    You’re right, The Impending End of the World is an old concern. I do wonder, though, if there’s an edge now: the fact that in previous eras there was simply a sense of vulnerability in the face of uncontrollable forces, but now there’s a sense of having brought it on ourselves precisely through our over-confidence in science and technology to overcome those natural forces, and of having inadvertently released them doublefold. This is the kind of thing my protagonist feels, at any rate. And the idea that the world is not just threatened with extinction but actually poisoned, that the things we touch and eat, that ought to be our life force, could harm us because of what we ourselves have done…

  3. Sue Guiney says:

    Your conversation with Elizabeth has led me here for the first time. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I’ll be adding your blog to my list of those I follow. Why did it take me so long to find you?

    jb says:
    Hi Sue,
    Good of you to call round. We tend to get stuck in the landscape we know from time to time. So it’s a relief when something new comes into sight.
    I’ve added your excellent blog to my links list.

  4. I am reading the novel at the moment and am really hooked – the language is beautiful, the mystery is compelling, there is such atmosphere. And I have also been moved by it (as the mother of 2 boys and a small baby, I relate to it very much.) I’m finding it a rich novel, and can’t wait to get back to it each time I put it down.
    Well done, Elizabeth,and John.
    Looking forward to being next week’s host.
    Nuala x

    jb says:
    Hi Nuala, thanks for the comment. I expect to see you over at your blog next week.
    Best wishes, John.