Three to See the King, by Magnus Mills

James Urquhart acclaims a sly parable that bends and reshapes the land of Oz
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Home, Salman Rushdie bemoaned in his essay "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers", has become a scattered, damaged concept. "There is so much to yearn for. There are so few rainbows any more. How hard can we expect even a pair of magic shoes to work?" Rushdie's sly satire (movie iconography venerated as talismanic panaceas for personal ills) touched a home truth: we mostly crave love, a sense of purpose and security in place or self, without which we tend to displace our hopes and anxieties onto others.

There is more than a touch of heel-clicking in Magnus Mills's marvellous new fable, Three to See the King, which feels strongly affected by the material ambience of The Wizard of Oz. Our unnamed narrator lives high up on a windy plain "in a house built entirely from tin, with four tin walls, a roof of tin, a chimney and door. Entirely from tin." His cherished routines batten against the all-season gales and shovel sand-drifts from the door. Friends live over the horizon in their own isolated tin houses: chattering Simon Painter, finger-drumming Steve Treacle and taciturn Philip Sibling.

Then Mary Petrie arrives, an unannounced acquaintance, shrill and self-possessed, who seems to know our narrator uncannily well. With her come doubts. Why did he settle in this tin house? Why are his neighbours suddenly dismantling theirs and moving west with them, converging on the charismatic figure of Michael Hawkins? Why have the travellers roaming the high plain turned into a steady stream of pilgrims walking west, bent double under loads of... tin?

Our narrator is gradually stripped of his tin-bound certainties and goaded by Mary Petrie into setting off to find out what has happened to his friends in Michael Hawkins's settlement. What he discovers are adherents busily building, shall we say, a new tin Jerusalem.

Magnus Mills is artful in his use of tone and reference. Three to See the King is in many places only whiskers away from overt religious imagery, from the very title and cover of the novel through to the messianic destiny of Michael Hawkins ­ yet the novel retains all the eager anticipation of a child's story.

Mills has layered his text with subtle, fluid images which rarely allude but frequently associate: the dusty confluence of travellers' westbound footprints could be a pilgrim trail or the Yellow Brick Road, while the busy construction of Michael Hawkins's visionary new community has both Dorothy's infectious enthusiasm and the optimistic zeal of the Acts of the Apostles. The result is a delicious ambiguity, a parable which is both loaded and ingenuous.

Mills has made this somewhat of a stock-in-trade. Following his menacing debut , The Restraint of Beasts, came the superbly unnerving All Quiet on the Orient Express, a novel which ensnared another unnamed narrator in the web of obligations and insinuations spun by terse neighbours.

Three to See the King possesses this same unsettling sense of being buffeted by the seemingly reasonable demands and assumptions of others, but also turns towards the possibility of gaining strength and enrichment. There are no magic slippers, Magnus Mills gently suggests; and nor are any needed.