I’d read a lot of his stuff before, and we have mutual friends (enough for me to know his surname sounds like ‘Mars’), but that didn’t help as much as I’d expected here. Yes, I pretty much figured out the way the relationship between the shy, bereaved outsider Simon and the equally bookish Goth-chick Kelly would pan out but I was wrong-footed by everything else.
The prose-style (and the rather misleading blurb) keep you half-expecting things that don’t quite materialise. You think Kelly’s going to sprout wings next chapter and she doesn’t. The book-exchange at the core of the novel isn’t really any bigger inside and the back room doesn’t lead to adventures like in Mr Benn. At least, not that kind of adventure. Simon’s grandparents look likely to come to blows but their conflict, predictably over reading and its uses, goes in an odd direction and is resolved offstage. Simon’s gran, Winnie, has a relationship with the once-local celebrity author Ada Jones (obviously Catherine Cookson) and the flashbacks make it seem as if a Big Secret is about to be revealed, but that’s not quite what we get either. Magrs usually combines Magic Realist malarkey with very detailed descriptions of his home town in the North East but the place-names and specifics are replaced by vagueries and the locale became more generic here.
At heart this is a book about the power of books to heal. The character with most of the wisdom to make this work is the Exchange’s manager, Terrance (and for those mutual friends and me that spelling is significant but he’s more than an in-joke). He’s barely in it. Instead, the characters who don’t find books, especially Ada’s books, especially valuable are all shown as part of the reason Simon and Kelly will probably leave this town soon. There’s a lot left unsaid in this book, and at several stages it’s almost possible to imagine the author considering where the story will go next and deciding against what he really wanted to do because that’s exactly what we all expect. This isn’t a bad thing, as for once the restraining of his usual exuberence and jiggery-pokery is what the book needs. But if you pick up that sense that magic’s almost about to happen once every couple of chapters it can be frustrating. I’ve already told you how un-fantastical events in this book are but it’s written by someone who sees the everyday world as potentially no different from a wild tale of enchantment.
By Tat Wood