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Monday 15 March 2010

Too Many Magpies


9781844717217cov_W-7.preview Normally I wait until I’ve finished a book to review it. This time I ended up going about things a little differently. I felt the need to respond to the book as soon as I’d finished the first section, which I did, and then decided I’d continue and write the review cumulatively. This is how it worked out.


2.2.10, 4am

Time is linear. Yes, of course it is. Four o'clock follows three just as five will follow four. But we do not experience time in a linear fashion. Our body does, it ticks along happily, minute after minute, oblivious to time but not to its ravages. We, on the other hand, the we on the inside, flit back and forth jumping decades in our mind so that the now is always stained with the past if only a little. I began reading this book twice before and had to give up. They had been the wrong times. Those times my head had been elsewhere and I couldn't give the book the attention it deserved or at least required. The leaps in time were too much combined with my own leaps and bounds. The third time I started it was in the early hours of this morning. As I read this time I still had to contend with the past, my past readings. The words were not as new as they had been before. Yes, I thought, I remember this bit, the first two pages which I was now reading for the third time and then the next few and then I was on the open road with this woman who is one minute in a park with an unnamed man she met at a seminar, the smoker, the one with bad teeth; the next she is in a garden with her family; no, she's now with her future husband, the one with the good teeth, meeting her mother and eating a jam sponge. Suddenly I'm swept back to my own childhood and I wonder why we don't buy jam sponges any more. When was the last one I ate? I must ask my wife to make one, with powdered sugar; bad for the diet, good for the soul.

This time I only read 'For Sorrow', the first of the book's four sections, a mere 22 pages. I decide not to push it even though I could easily read 'For Joy' and that would only be 58 pages total but this is not a book to rush. I'm already beginning to feel tired. But my head is full of magpies and I sit down to write this knowing I won't be able to get back to sleep until I've made a start. This is the first time I've ever felt the need to begin a book review after reading barely a fifth of the book but I'm afraid I'll forget this if I don't and that won't do.

2.2.10, 1pm

Magpie_1 Thinking back the overall feeling I've got from this book is of a story coming into focus. Everything revolves around someone she encounters by chance at a committee meeting, a man. They're both “educationalists”, whatever that means, and they've been “drafted in to advise on artists in schools.” This is the woman's – the narrator's (because this is written in the first person) – her “first outside commitment since before [she'd] had the babies.” There are two children, Danny, four, and the newborn, Sam. I had to search for the name because he's always, apart from once, referred to simply as “the baby”:

I had the baby. I hugged him to me. Sam. But I still thought of him as the baby. Baby-natured and replete, he didn't need a name.

After Sam's birth the woman suffers from depression. “They have a name for what happened to me then,” she writes, “Postnatal depression”:

Names make things safe, they say, pull them into perspective, point out the edges where they start and end. Stop you thinking they're unfathomable.

Postnatal depression: hormonal reaction to the birth of a baby.

I felt trapped and frightened, by the inadequacy of the name.

She's clearly an intelligent woman, a thinker. Her husband, Richard, the one with the good teeth, is a scientist:

His field was nutrition, and his special interest was Cholesterol. This sometimes led to Hormones, and what they called Inter-Disciplinary Cross-Fertilization, which in recent years had manifested itself for me in the form of bridge evenings with a university medic and his GP wife.

Is she in a happy marriage? There's no evidence that her husband beats her or mistreats her so why is she in a park with a strange man counting magpies and trying to remember the old song about what seeing x number means? And why does she go for a drink afterward which extends to two drinks? Is this the beginning of an affair?

3.2.10, 3:30am

Magpie_2 Time marches on. At least time has decided that linearity is best for now. I'm glad. This second section, 'For Joy', is easier only it's not especially joyful so I guess I'm not to make too much of the headings. Still no names, at least not for the woman nor her . . . lover is the right word, technically, but there are different kinds of love and love doesn't always involve being intimate, at least not sexually intimate. They do have sex here. He, “[t]hat man, who gave up owning houses, who it seemed didn't wear a coat in the rain,” he arrives at her house unannounced and unexpected and, just over a page later leaves. More time is spent in the greenhouse than having sex, in fact as the affair progresses I wondered if Elizabeth Baines was so uncomfortable writing about sex that it was left to her readers to imagine the technicalities. Not so. It just so happens it's not that kind of affair. They have sex – it seems only proper if you're going to have an affair to have sex at least once – but that taken care of the affair continues at its own pace and in its own way. It’s hard to see the attraction other than he’s everything her husband is not.[1] There is more than one way to be unfaithful and having intercourse with another man is the easy part. I have no idea how hard or easy it was. It must have happened in the crease between page 24 and 25.

Her husband puts two and two together. He's a scientist and so he never thinks that it could make anything other than four. But what do you do with four? Four is only an answer, it's not the end:

You could say that Richard acted well.

He said, 'There's no blame. I don't blame you, why should I? It's the unknown factor we always knew could occur.'

Though there was a care in the way he said it. He knew a certain code must be applied. He didn't say those shriveled words, adultery, unfaithfulness, but the elaborate way he sidestepped them pointed them out all the more.

He said, 'You need to work it through.'

He makes it sound like a maths problem. He had decided that the answer was four; the woman is still working it through but he expects her to come to the same conclusion. A solution is really no good unless you’ve worked it out by yourself. It's not as simple as that. As the weeks pass by she continues to meet her other man in lay-bys and pubs and I kept imagining the sex was taking place in the creases in between the pages (or at least on the back seat) but I was wrong. I turns out that what the woman has been sharing is not her body but her soul. And the man, an older man and one not inexperienced when comes down to affairs (he says), is patient but his patience is not endless. As the section winds down he begins pressing her to leave her husband.

In this section we learn more about her children, especially Danny, the “gifted” one:

Gifted, they called him on Parents' Night. What they'd really meant was different; gifted wasn't a word with a proper meaning at all.

Danny comes across as aware. He is a young boy and cannot articulate what he is aware of but that doesn't invalidate his awareness. He knows something is going on without realising what that expression is a euphemism for. He starts to develop mysterious pains, growing pains the doctor suggests; it's a reasonable suggestion. That doesn't account for the changes in behaviour.

I felt pretty sure now in a vague sort of way Danny knew about him.

He said, 'Oh yes, all children know these things, through their skin.'

He said, 'All children have that gift, before it's knocked out of them.'


He said, 'Don't worry, children can take these things better than adults give them credit for. Children are far more resilient than you think.'

She is not convinced. These are after all only words.

4.2.10, 3:00am

Magpie_3 So, he has a name:

The phone rang and I went to answer it, the comfortingly petty inquiries of another mother about the school Harvest Festival.

When I put the phone down and turned, I nearly tripped over Danny.

He looked at me solemnly. 'Who was that?' he said cautiously. There was a challenge in the question. Also fear.

'Robin's mum!'

'Not him?' he asked carefully.


And then he said his name.

But we don't get to hear it. The affair, for want of a better word, has ended. When he does phone a little later she makes it abundantly clear:

'I see,' he said, his voice carefully, tensely drained of emotion.

And you would think that would be that, she would resume her old, familiar, safe, middle-class life and everything would pretend to be normal for long enough for actual normalcy to take over. To be fair she does give it a good go but then one day he visits. Sammy, the toddler as he's become, takes to him at once and is more than happy to offer the man his tomato, the one he has been entrusted to bring back from the greenhouse, over and over again, snatching it back at the last minute and giggling as toddlers are wont to do. The man is sent packing. She begins locking the door once inside the house. She becomes afraid. He stops trying her on her mobile and resorts to using the land line, saying nothing and putting down the receiver.

Eventually, Richard, her husband, the one with the “safe” name, decrees that something would have to be done (to cheer her up) and they arrange to stay with his brother. It snows on the way there and the visit does not revitalise here as hoped. She cannot sleep. Birds keep her away at night, owls Richard assumes. He fusses and tries to settle her but he can't stop up her ears:

All night I heard them out there calling. They were sitting in the trees, they'd come north with the snow, it seemed, and they were settling in, positioning themselves, forming a circle, relaying hoots of derision and menace, messages from the south [where he lives].

Richard slept beside me, secure after all in his rational view of the world.

There's nothing that can't be explained in natural terms.

It depends what you call natural.

It depends if you count the Devil among the natural terms.

She becomes ill; at least that what the family decide it must be. Illnesses can be coped with. People can rally round. That means Richard's mother, well-meaning but still Richard's mother. Christmas comes and goes and then, ten pages before this section, 'For a Secret', ends he arrives one night in the snow, come, he says, to take her away, her and the kids.

Richard and Danny see her with him:

Richard came down the step, and faltered, uncertain for a moment that his suspicion was fulfilled.

Then he said, 'You.'

He didn't use his name.

There was a pause, and then Richard said, 'You'd better come in.'

How ruddy civilised! If you were expected a fistfight out of the sight of the neighbours forget it. There’s hardly a conversation at all. In fact Richard says very little other than, 'She's not been well,' and, of course, that's not what he's saying but he tries so hard to cram everything he wants to say to this man into those four words. Oh, how I hate conversations that take place in the silences in between the sentences. Why can't people simply say what they mean? Or even say the wrong thing! Would it be so bad if one of them said the wrong thing? This is not a criticism of Elizabeth's writing, far from it. What she packs into these two pages is impressive: the silences are close to Pinteresque.

They don't talk. He seeks Richard's agreement that he and she might talk and it is given. She wants to talk to him alone and so the next day she drives to the designated spot, the familiar old designated spot, and they talk. He's arranged everything, even a place in the local school for Danny. She tells him it won't be needed but what does that mean? She drives home to her husband:

I shut the door. Hope made [Richard] rise from his chair, like a man when the good fairy enters.

But he wasn't that simplistic, after all he never had been; he saw my face, I watched him encounter and then accommodate a possibility he'd never once suspected.

The good fairy's spell can only modify a curse, after all.

Now, what the hell does that mean?

4.2.10, 10:30am

Ah, so that is what she means! No, I’m not going to tell you. I’ve told you enough. Suffice to say, nothing’s black and white:

There are no simple messages, the magpies are saying, they flap their wings, black-and-white, good-and-bad, nothing’s pure, not even science, certainly not science any more: the messages are getting complicated, we can no longer rely on simple unchanging patterns, stars in the firmament do die.

Things did not go the way I expected in this chapter and yet what happens is that everyone is revealed for who they truly are and probably not how any of them saw themselves. There are no bad guys and good guys but there is one very poorly little boy and again what exactly is up with him is not stated explicitly. I must drop Elizabeth an e-mail and find out what it is with her and not naming things.

4.2.10, 1:00pm

Magpie_4 When I reviewed Elizabeth’s short story collection (you can read the review here) I wrote: “Baines does children well,” and she does and with such economy of language. It’s tempting to think of this book as being about the ‘eternal triangle’ but that’s just something that happens along the way and the kids are just waiting in the wings to see the outcome. Oh no. Danny especially, is a player in this book. Because he’s a child he doesn’t have the strongest hand but he bluffs well and beats the odds a few times. But at the end of the day there are no real winners and losers in this game; they survive, all of them, but at a cost.

It is the woman’s story though and although I don’t think for a second the book is an allegory, the narrator is something of an everywoman. This is a love story too but not a conventional love story; it’s about a woman, a deeply ambivalent woman, who is being pulled in all directions by her need to express and respond to love, love for her husband, her children, herself and the tall man she meets in lay-bys. Not every woman would make the choices she makes but her willingness to live with the consequences is commendable. Nevertheless it looks like she’s got a long life ahead of her filled with long days; plenty of time to think, “and begin on the only madness left to [her: she starts] to hope.”

Like her short story collection this is a beautifully-written book. It is a short book (123 pages) but it is not a quick read. As I mentioned above I had two false starts. (Word of advice: this is not a book to read on a bus with people talking all around you.) The narrator actually reminds me a little of the protagonist in The Trick is to Keep Breathing and I suspect people who enjoyed that book would enjoy this one. Neither is straightforward and both have narrators who could best be described as fraught. Baines’ writing is spare, dense, and poetic and several times I had to go back and reread a few paragraphs to see if I’d missed something.

I was going to e-mail Elizabeth about the lack of names but in the interview she gives to Sally Zigmond she pretty much answers the question:

E. There's a tremendous power in naming things, and of course traditional magic is very much tied up with this. Look at the Rumpelstiltskin story: by withholding his name the dwarf Rumpelstiltskin has sinister power over the miller's daughter, but once she guesses his name she is freed from it. This power of naming is very strong in our society, to the extent, I think, that we can have too much faith in names, especially in the fields of pseudo- and applied science, and this is what TMM is concerned with. – The Elephant in the Writing Room

I see names as restrictive. Once you name something you say what it is and what it can be; it exists within certain parameters: there are a list of preconditions a creature has to meet to be called ‘a cat’ but a Siamese meets them as does a tiger. Science is preoccupied with naming things, creating formulas and definitions which is why, I suppose, Richard has a name; he is a fixed point, whereas the narrator and her lover have yet to be defined and the one of the subtexts in this novel is about how they finally settle on definitions.

Do the magpies win in the end? When you see x number of magpies what is that? Is that Destiny showing her hand? Never been too clear about that. And then there’re the owls and the blackbirds, what about them? Magpies are not the only magical birds in the forest.

If I had to say what I didn’t like about the book (and I know I don’t but I’m going to) it’s the characters; I didn’t warm to any of them apart from perhaps the baby, Sammy, who sounded adorable. I think it’s the feeling of betwixt-and-betweeness that hangs over everyone; no one knows his or her place and, much as some readers might let out a gasp of amazement, I blame the heroine since she’s the fulcrum on which the story rests and she is, quite bluntly, restless.

Looking back on the book as a whole you can see the shadow of black and white magpies everywhere. Our nameless narrator is constantly faced with choices, between accepted behaviour and being herself, between doing what’s best for her family and what’s right for her, between staying and leaving, between magic and science. But is there a third option, a grey one? She believes there is.

I’m happy to recommend this book, as I did her short story collection, but be warned, she expects her readers to pull their weight.


picture-25294 Elizabeth Baines' grandmother claimed to be a descendent of the family of the Welsh bard Will Hopkin. The fact that the truth of this is unknown was not enough to deter Elizabeth from deciding at an early age to be a writer in his footsteps. Born in Bridgend, South Wales, to a Welsh mother and an Irish father, she studied English at Bangor, and for several years was a teacher of English in schools in Scotland and England. She is the prizewinning author of prose fiction and plays, with an established career as an acclaimed radio dramatist. With Ailsa Cox, she founded and edited the acclaimed short-story magazine Metropolitan (1992-97). Her collection of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World, was published by Salt in 2007 and pronounced 'a stunning debut collection' (The Short Review). In 2004 she took up occasional acting by performing one of her own stage monologues for the 24:7 Theatre Festival. She lives in Manchester. She writes the well-regarded Fictionbitch blog and her own author blog.

You can hear Elizabeth read two extracts from her novel on the Salt Publishing site, here and you can download a sample PDF to read yourself here.

[1] Jen Michalski’s comments in her review here are worth considering


Kass said...

Ah Jim, you know you do book reviews so well that I fancy they read better than the actual book might. This was a gripper. I liked the way you reviewed as you read. It got me going. And I don't mind that you didn't tell me the conclusion. That's very sporting of you, on Elizabeth's behalf.

You say you didn't warm to the heroine, but I don't think it will matter to women readers. We will subplot our own warmth in along with our own brand of ambivalence.

"It must have happened in the crease between page 24 and 25." I love this and I love how intriguing you've made Elizabeth's book seem.

What is a jam sponge?

Rachel Fenton said...

I really like how you did this review - in instalments - and the way that you leave readers of this review no choice but to read the book!

John Baker said...

It brought the book back for me, for which many thanks. Though your thoughts and mine didn't quite intersect. I liked the woman and her husband in different ways, in their togetherness and the ways in which they couldn't meet.
But she is a tremendous writer, no doubt about that.
And here I go, rereading again . . .

Rachel Fox said...

I always like different takes on the sad old remnant that is the book review. An interesting ramble, Jim, and I found all the names stuff especially interesting. I find it really hard to learn (for example) names of plants and I know it's partly that (as I have no plans to study them or work with them in any way) I don't particularly want to name them. I just want to see them.


Jim Murdoch said...

I do my best, Kass, but in this case the book is better than my review besides it’s easy to make a good book sound good. And despite the fact I didn’t personally warm to the protagonist that is just a personal observation. I know from reading other reviews that there are those who will disagree with my assessment which is why no one should ever decide to read a book based on one review unless they realise from past experience that they are in tune with the reviewer.

As for jam sponge (see picture). It’s exactly what it sounds like.

Rachel Fenton - yeah, not quite sure how I ended up doing it this way but it works. What I like is that it shows the book coming into focus. And, if you did decide to buy the book, I’m sure Elizabeth would be delighted.

Thanks for the feedback, John. I was a bit wary about voicing my reservations when it comes to the protagonist; people can get put off so easily. I’ve just written a review of what I expect will become a bestseller where I had a similar problem, this time a passive lead, but that’s only one aspect of the book and, again, from comparing other reviews I can see that some agree and others never bring it up. The thing is to be honest without making a big deal of it.

And, Rachel Fox, I’ve never been very good with names, faces yes, but not names. I have mixed feelings on their importance in book. In the novel I’ve just finished no one has a name and I coped just fine; the book before that had a cast of thousands and I got quite lost towards the end.

Ann Elle Altman said...

What an interesting book! I love those that make you think...make you ponder. I just finished a book that made me think and I'm surprised books still can today. I shouldn't be but I am.


Jim Murdoch said...

I know what you mean, Ann, and what’s so surprising is that so often the things we end up thinking about are the subjects we think we’ve thought through to their logical conclusions, love probably being the top of that list.

Elisabeth said...

Good grief, Jim, I don't know how I missed seeing this post. I can only claim frantic busyness.

I haven't told the blog world that my daughter is getting married next week. But your review here puts me in mind of something I haven't been able to get out of my mind for about three weeks - all to do with the business of names.

I won't go into details save to say that my daughter and her future husband have decided to create a new name for themselves and their two and half year old child, a name that in no way relates to the names of their parents or forbears.

We are having a time coming to grips with this, as I'm sure we will one day, come to grips with it that is.

But it seems to me the business of names is very very important. For names are to do with identity among other things.

This would have to be one of my favourite of all your reviews that I've read, Jim. I'm not sure exactly why. I love all your reviews but this one has scpooped out my insides.

I'd like to buy this book. I'd like to read this book. I'd like to find out more about the author.

On the other hand your review here has left me feeling strangely satisfied, as if the silence in between is enough for me and I don't want to delve more deeply. Knowing me, I will.

How can I say it without sounding too much over the top? This review makes me admire the reviewer as much as, maybe even more so than, the author and the book reviewed. Thank you.

Jim Murdoch said...

Perhaps the difference with this review, Lis, is that I took you along with me. Mostly I begin a review in a superior position, knowing all, and I eke out bits to you until I think I’ve baited you enough. This time I began a review not knowing where the book was going. In fact I admitted to putting it down twice beforehand. Surely not a recommendation and I bet Elizabeth was wondering where the hell I was going with this. Whatever the reason I’m glad you enjoyed it.

As for your daughter’s intention to create an entirely new name, I think that’s fascinating. I believe I’ve heard of it being done once before but clearly it’s not a common choice. Online my wife is known as Carrie Berry and it’s never bothered me one jot that she kept the name. It’s a good name. Berry’s not her maiden name but she was ‘Carrie Berry’ for thirty years and that’s who she is now. It has very little to do with her ex-husband.

What gets me are those women who go for double-barrelled names. I’ve never understood that. And what happens when two people with double-barrelled names decide to wed? I’m sure there are rules but I can just imagine some difficult bugger wanting a four-barrelled name. (Actually I looked it up and there’s a five-barrelled name on record: Lady Caroline Jemima Temple-Nugent-Chandos-Brydges-Grenville (Lived 1858 to 1946).)

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