Review of Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines

Domesticity never takes place upon a large or lauded stage, it is a private, secret world whose interactions and observances are held and carried forward into ‘real life’. Elizabeth Baines’ book places the domestic in this central, core position. ‘A young mother married to a scientist fears for her children’s saftey as the natural world around her becomes even more certain. Until, that is, she meets a charismatic stranger who seems to offer a different kind of power.’

In this novel there is a sense of what was the title of Elizabeth Baines’ short story collection ‘Balancing on the edge of the world’. She subtlely elucidates the tremulous feeling and anxious vigilance of parenthood. There is the impression that threats are always close. What Baines does beautifully is to convey the otherworldliness experience of bringing up small children and their way of making our commonplace world seem bizzare. The not-quite-rightness of the eldest child Danny’s behaviour is imbued with a magical and mystical quality.

This is a book that made me hold my breath. Baine’s gift is to do the literary equivalent of revealing what is on the inside of trouser pockets during laundry, ordinary and sacred things otherwise hidden are carefully revealed. Both these secret pockets and the heart is turned inside out on reading. The main character  goes along the motorway to meet the man she looks to for direction, she stretches the domestic elastic, always travelling back again, she breaks the taboos of suburban motherhood, she risks censure but the elastic tugs constantly. She discovers what is ‘really’ wrong with her child and the threat is now tangible, accessible.

What I found extraordinary as reader and writer was Elizabeth Baines’ ability to convey so skillfully and lightly the nuances of relationships and communication, the small exchanges, the particular words of common conversation that can illuminate the character’s view of each other or irreversibly wound. As a reader it was the kind of book I have longed to read, as a writer, it is the kind of book I would dream of writing. To sum up the strength and marvel of this book is to see it like a dust mote, something mundanely domestic but magical, spinning for long moments in our consciousness.

Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines is published by Salt Modern Fiction

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