Fiction - paperback; Salt Publishing; 124 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of author.
In many European cultures, the magpie is associated with superstition. In English folklore, the bird is a bad omen. In Scotland, a magpie near the window of a house foretells death. In Sweden, it is associated with witchcraft.
In Elizabeth Baines' Too Many Magpies the bird is a metaphor for the mysterious world of spells and magic, but it also symbolises nature.
In the park there were magpies, too many to be counted. When I was a child there were never so many of them -- one for sorrow, you said, two for joy -- but now there were too many for such short rhymes or such simple messages, they'd multiplied and colonized the towns.
The story, which is told from the point of view of an unnamed mother, explores what it is like to raise children in a world beset by environmental problems. Together with Richard, her scientist husband, the pair grow their own vegetables "since trials had indicated that pesticides and nitrates in farming and market gardening could cause allergies and cancers". They read the books, apply the gathered knowledge, and their little family -- "husband, wife and two-point-four children" -- is happy and safe.
But then a charismatic stranger enters the woman's life, a man who is the direct opposite of her husband, who talks of spells and magic, and lives life with spontaneous abandon.
He said, 'Have another brandy.' He added, 'You only live once.' What he meant, and what I knew now, was that if you stopped worrying you could live several times.
His carefree attitude rubs off on the woman, and before she knows it she's not exactly neglecting her children, but she is less anxious, less fearful for their safety. As she whizzes off down the motorway to make her secret rendezvous, her newly acquired blithe spirit teeters on irresponsibility. She drinks, she drives, and on one occasion she comes across unexpected roadworks, so that she has to slam on the brakes:
The red-and-white cones rushed up more quickly than it seemed they should have done; I pressed the pedal and got the brakes under control. Each side then red-and-white barriers flickered as I crawled. TAKE CARE, said a sign, too late, FOR HALF A MILE.
On the most basic level Too Many Magpies is a story is about a straitlaced, anxious mother embarking on an extra-marital affair and then dealing with its outfall. But to dismiss it as a middle-class romance-cum-kitchen-sink drama would do the book, and its author, a supreme injustice.
Despite its subject matter, there is no sex in this book. Everything feels oblique. References are askew, nothing is nailed down. It lends the story a haunting, intangible quality. The prose is filled with a kind of musicality more reminiscent of Irish writers than British ones. I found myself being lulled by its rhythm -- and its magic.
For such a slim volume Too Many Magpies also wrestles with big ideas -- science versus nature, methodical analysis versus irrational fear, well being (physical and mental) versus illness -- and explores marriage, parenthood and the impossibility of protecting children from a world of hidden, unknowable dangers, all subjects which I expect are close to many people's hearts.
I found the book curiously reminiscent of Jennifer Johnston's style, in particular The Illusionist, but it also reminded me of Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child in its depiction of a young boy, marked out as different from birth, who causes disruption to his picture-perfect family.
Smartly plotted and with not a word wasted, Too Many Magpies is an appealing, bewitching read, one that feels slightly dangerous and a little bit thrilling. It deals with predictable subjects in unpredictable ways, and for that reason alone it marks Baines as a British writer to watch. Highly recommended.