Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines

Image result for too many magpiesToo Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines is published by Salt, an independent publisher that specialises in literary fiction. It was published in 2009 but I picked up a copy in Waterstones this week, attracted by the title and the synopsis on the back.

It's a novella narrated by a woman with two small children, five-year-old Danny and baby Sam. She's married to Richard, a scientist who supposedly sees the world in very clear and scientific terms. And yet he seems to latch on to unproven or speculative scientific theories expressed in single papers that are easily debunked. He doesn't trust supermarket vegetables or bread because of the chemicals they might contain, and the couple have an agreement that their children must only ever eat sugar on their birthdays. When the narrator, increasingly anxious about her children's safety, unnerved by her eldest son's eerie maturity and odd behaviour and gradually becoming strangely fearful of the natural world around her, meets a mysterious, free-spirited stranger who couldn't be more different from Richard, she's irresistibly drawn to him. But who is he? And which man should she trust?

Too Many Magpies has an unsettling, rather oppressive atmosphere, full of uncertainty and inner conflict as the narrator is torn between the rational and the instinctive - although is Richard's supposed rationalism, which prompts him to bar his family from eating eggs for a whole year because of a single, subsequently disproven theory that they will cause a build-up of cholesterol, really very rational at all?

Although I'm not a parent, I found the narrator's anxieties about her children convincing. It's unclear whether her fears are justified; she certainly appears to witness some strange occurrences but it's also suggested that she may be in the grip of post-natal depression. It also has an ominous, almost pre-apocalyptic feel, with the narrator frightened by the sudden multiplying of the magpies in the title, and freak weather conditions that may or may not be a result of climate change. This does, however, make this a rather intense read, and although it's exceptionally well-written  - it reads almost like an extended prose poem and feels remarkably timely and relevant - I don't think I could have stuck with it if it had been any longer.

Too Many Magpies is available in paperback here or for Kindle here.