Book review: Could it be magic? by Paul Magrs (Chatto & Windus, pounds 9.99)

tuesday's book
Could it be magic?

by Paul Magrs (Chatto & Windus, pounds 9.99)

There is evidently a yellow brick road running through the council estates of Newton Aycliffe. Unlike the gritty realism of previous generations, or the chemically induced nihilism of his own, Paul Magrs's vision of urban squalor is touched by magic.

Magrs's fictional world is one of horrendous social and cultural deprivation, where people are known not only by name but by adjective: Mad Nesta; Old Elsie; Dirty Sheila and Simon; Big Sue. He makes their lives bearable to themselves and fascinating to his readers through an extravagant accumulation of incident. A transvestite lies in a coma after being attacked by his daughter's future boyfriend; a youth gives birth to a leopard-boy in a gay bar; a woman kills her husband with a tin of baked beans; and there is as much sexual activity here as in Peyton Place.

Reviewing Magrs's second novel here, I classified his style as "magic soap opera". Reading his third, I see no reason to alter that definition, except to add that his fondness for grotesque domestic detail results in a kind of Tupperware Gothic.

Magrs's people not only act as though they live in soap operas; they constantly refer to them. References to Bet Lynch, Lynda La Plante, Vanessa, Rikki Lake and JR Ewing litter the novel.

Refuting conventional wisdom, Magrs has imported the entire cast of characters from his first two novels and appears to be attempting a Tyneside equivalent of Armistead Maupin's Barbary Lane, with the transvestite Liz standing in for the transsexual Mrs Madrigal.

The result is brimming with charm but lacking in depth. For example, Penny's magic powers resemble those of Samantha in the television show Bewitched, rather than of Clara in The House of the Spirits.

It is a pleasure to find Magrs once again making magic of his home town. But, like Andy, if he is to grow, he must move on.

Michael Arditti