Elizabeth Baines’s Too Many Magpies (Salt, 2009) is a slim little book. And the timeline is short, following along the events of just a few seasons. But it is one of those books interested in describing/exploring how a person’s life can fundamentally change in a matter of seconds. In this case it is the result of chance, an unexpected meeting between a man and a married woman who is also a young mother.
So, yes, this is a book about infidelity. And often it feels like there are already too many of those around, but Too Many Magpies comes at the question from an oblique angle. It isn’t interested in asking the reader to think about how this young woman could possibly fall for another man at such a time in her life—surrounded as she is by a loving husband and two small children—instead, it takes the falling part for granted. This is something that happens. This is something people do not always control. A connection arises, unforeseen and even unwanted. But it is too powerful to ignore.
And the question the book sets up is one about rational thinking vs. superstition and intuition, about logic vs. emotion, about need vs. desire. More than anything the book is about power. How does a person come to exercise a kind of power over another? How willing, how complicit are we in this process? And finally, perhaps the most interesting part of the question, the book also looks at how other people’s perceptions of us change once it becomes clear that we’ve allowed ourselves to be influenced by someone else’s power.
Without a doubt the story and the questions Baines poses are compelling, unique even. But her writing is what makes this short book exceptional. A very intimate first-person narrator takes us through her story, telling of the events and conversations and occurrences that mark her experience. She slips easily between time markers, and gives only the essential; she is interested in symbolism, coincidence and knowledge. She wants to understand how you can know things, and what that word really means.
Funny how something good and easy can make you know about the bad.
It wasn’t that the birth was easy, the second time; they tell me that in an earlier age he’d have died. I believe it. I knew it then, and so did he. They held him up, amongst all that blood and metal, and I saw the instinct-knowledge cross his face: so that was it, that’s the line you have to teeter on, that was death, and this is life. So. And satisfied, he closed his eyes.
And set to work seizing life in as calm and efficient a way as possible, drinking deep and quickly from my breasts and falling straight back into unburdened sleep for hours.
No, it wasn’t that there was no danger. But there was this certainty: that however things turned out, they were proceeding according to natural laws.
The book involves this wonderful tension between ideas of science and more romantic and felt explanations for what happens in everyday life. The narrator is curious about how deeply we want to believe in magic, yet she is aware of how dangerous and beautiful those beliefs can be. But also, on the other side, how very shocked and disappointed we may feel when science fails us in some way. It is really well done—complicated and with no real attempt to do more than question and examine and highlight these tendencies. I love the ambiguity in that.
I’ve only just discovered Baines. She has another short novel called The Birth Machine, and a collection of short fiction, Balancing on the Edge of the World, both of which are published by Salt. Very much looking forward to read the rest of her work.