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Of Magpies and Men

by Ode Ray

Rating: ****

It’s 2009 and wealthy Londoner, Benedict Grant, has everything or so it seems. When his Mother dies suddenly, he realises that not only did he really not know her, he also did not know himself. Meanwhile, in Marseille, Nurse Marie Boulanger is struggling, living in a trailer park and desperately wishing she could afford a proper home for her asthmatic son, Romain. Fast forward to 2017 and two bodies are found washed ashore in Italy – what possible connection could they have to Benedict and Marie?

Of Magpies and Men is an unusual book which, on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed. Ms Ray is an undoubtedly good storyteller and has an absolute gift for writing perceptive prose laced with humour. There were some really insightful sentiments that gave me pause. There is also a well-observed, precise quality in her descriptive imagery and I especially liked the way she endowed inanimate objects with human qualities such as chairs giving a ‘crisp sigh’ when sat upon. Lovely. Personally, the first half/three-quarters of the novel were the strongest by far; well-written, really intriguing and peppered with a volley of credible twists all contained within the framework of some delightfully developed writing. I struggled to put it down.

However, I did feel that in places, there were two or possibly three other books here and towards the end everything is thrown at the plot from all angles and possibly at the expense of the characters. There is a lot going on and some of the tangents do not always successfully feed into the main narrative, a couple could have been dispensed with. There are also some individuals, Gabin for example, that gave me the impression of becoming fairly central but they just peter out and there are few loose ends such as Diane. Notwithstanding, the book tackles of number of differing themes which are not at all evident at the start and Ms Ray introduces and incorporates some tricky elements in a thought-provoking and sensitive manner which is carried through to the portrayals of the main characters. Yukinobu was, for me, the star, Vlora was uncomfortably derelict and I could have read more with the Italian Detective Giandomenico Paoli as Ms Ray pictures him so very wonderfully.

The pace is fairly fluid and you gallop along wondering how the 2009 events will marry with 2017. I thought that the title was very clever although you do have to wait some way before it becomes clear. The storyline is ambitious for a first novel yet Ms Ray pretty much delivers; there is much to admire here and I will be really interested to see what comes next from this incredibly promising Author.

Overall, an absorbing, complex and beautifully written debut – highly recommended.

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