too many magpies

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

When does the story end?

Before proceeding with some musings on short story creation I would like to firstly mention an arena where I hope the story will never end. I refer here to the wonderful and brave Salt Publishing who this year celebrate ten years of innovative publishing, introducing new talent and being a particular champion of short story and poetry collections. You may be aware of their recession response Just One Book campaign. Despite the quality of their publications they need help and patronage to stay afloat and appeal for us all to purchase just one of their fine books.  My favourite recommendations would be

Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines

The White Road and Other Stories by Tania Hershman

but please browse their fine catalogue and choose your favourites.

So moving on to today’s topic, I’m concentrating here in particular on short stories and how we assess the natural length and scope of a story. K. M. Weiland has focussed on our difficulty in letting go of the process. Much of what she says rings true, particularly with regard to novels but for me, a short story is a more instinctual form.  A great short story has a just rightness, a completeness in itself, regardless of length. But what length? And where do you include backstory and subplots?

These questions have come to me in particular since engaging in the weekly #fridayflash process whereby a group of twitter writers create an up to 1000 word story each week. I have found it to be an absolute joy. The length is just enough to place a few people in a significant moment and for me, it is just short enough to imbue great concentrated emotion and meaning into that episode without the distraction of subplot or backstory. However as an avid reader of stories, I have seen how backstory, adjunct character development and several episodes can develop intrigue and depth in a story. And short stories of course can be anything from six word flashes to novella length.

Usually we start with the story that needs to be told and the story should thus determine the length. However having written the 1000 word stories I was aware that I could have perhaps pulled out threads, given more background, added another episode. But that would have changed the quality (as in the feeling) of the piece. (Although I have written many longer pieces and included extra elements as they seemed ‘right’). Just as poetry suggests, elicits, hints, the very short, short story form has to indicate but never spell out, to make layers out of words using form, juxtaposition, sound and connotation. It is perhaps a different animal from the longer story. But we work from historical distinctions. Flash fiction is emerging as a new entity but perhaps there is room for further differentiation. Personally I love the spare, instinctive, almost primeval feeling of the shorter pieces. So as with music and art, the form itself is an integral part of the experience. The question of story length might really be a question of which instrument we play best and in what context, does it suit us to be the saxophone or oboe player of the soul, is it a minuet or a magnus opera? It comes down to the ‘way we tell ’em’ and the endless, relatively unchartered possibilities of fiction.

Is is all about instinct, experience and preference for a particular form? Or are there hard rules you follow? What do you think?

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