I came across my copy of 'Too Many Magpies' by Elizabeth Baines in the Oxfam bookshop. I reviewed 'The Birth Machine' several years ago but also read her short stories, 'Balancing on the Edge of the World', which are exquisite. I just realised this is yet another first person narrative. In this tightly written novella a young woman recounts the story of her marital infidelity and the disruptive effect an all encompassing passion has on her life.
The two main characters are nameless, which curiously makes them feel more familiar. The man appears from nowhere, and invades the quiet certainty of what seems to be a peaceful family life. The woman feels as if she is under a spell, as if some supernatural force is acting upon her, and the magpies that flutter through the pages are a portend of her powerlessness in the face of his persistence. So she takes off into the night, along the motorway, unable to escape the inevitable. But the pull of her children is just as powerful a force, tugging her back. There is a curious dichotomy between the growing independence of her older son and his vulnerability and obvious need for her. Their neat existence begins to fall apart and we watch with her as his behaviour becomes strange and, along with her, we blame the situation.
"I couldn't help noticing how skinny he was, his ribs showing through his chest, the nodules of his spine poking out down his back, such a bony little thing; as Richard said, you wondered where he put all that grub.
He scraped out his dish and got himself another Weetabix,fumbling, scattering more crumbs, as if something big depended on his eating it.
And then he finished, and shot away.
'Get dressed quick now!' I called as he slammed the kitchen door.
For comfort, I turned to Sam.
'Wee-Bick,' he said wickedly, spooning a bit in. With the other hand he picked some up, delicate, squeezed it with exaggerated gentleness, his face solemn concentration, and then dropped it over the side, listening intently to the splay on the tiles. And he looked over to see how it had splattered and broke into a wicked grin again." (p.51-2)
I found parts of the book very hard to read because her portrayal of Danny's fear of the circumstances that he seems to intuitively understand as threatening their family's integrity was very vivid, and it bought back memories of events closer to home. But the story is only partly about the breakup of a relationship, it is almost more about the woman's sense of divided loyalties, those to her family and those to herself as a separate person. When she comes to see that the man is just another person who needs her, it takes all her strength to push him away, as she tries to establish a new existence for herself and her sons. However the situation is brought to a head and a completely different kind of threat brings a whole new set of challenges to the family.
It is a very short book that packs a lot of emotional intensity into its pages. This quote sums up for me something of what the story is trying to get across, how vulnerable we all are, and how things are so often not what they appear on the surface, and how easily it can all fall apart:
"And yet I grieved, for the man I'd thought he was, my careful scientist, my scientific carer, the man who would share unconditionally my burden of care.
The unguessed possibility, I thought grimly, which had now at last been proved.
Any person, I thought grimly, could be quite other than you think.
I stared out at the garden of the old house, waiting to be able to move into the new one, thinking these things. Raining, I would think, and then, no, a hair infant of my eyes.
You thought you were seeing one thing, and all along you were seeing another." (p.89-99)