At the grand old age of 41 (I know, I don’t look a day over 40) I have had ample opportunity to work out what I truly believe in. My political views are resolutely liberal, my feminism inherently inclusive, and my monogamous relationship with Pepsi firmly set in stone despite the torrid temptations of other fizzy drinks. (I did briefly flirt with Mountain Dew but it was just short-lived, caffeine-induced lust). Whilst my opinions are not entirely immovable, it takes a convincing line of argument to change my perspective and I don’t often find myself thus challenged. So it is with no small fanfare I announce that, despite my traditional scepticism for both mysticism and magicians, last weekend I decided I believe in magic. Let me tell you why.
I was fortunate enough to be given a free copy of Magic by Mike Russell to review, but admit to some initial reservations: despite having really enjoyed Nothing is Strange by the same author, I usually avoid literary offerings that relate to anything supernatural or mystical in nature. Yet I found myself gripped from the very first page, thanks almost entirely to the endearing enthusiasm of Charlie, our narrator. Following the death of his abusive parents, Charlie has been cared for by Manzini the Marvellous (spoiler alert: his name may give away his profession), but when we we join him, he is living alone with an army of white rabbits, a child-like enthusiasm for life and a fervid fascination with magic. Little does he know that this latter passion is about to be shaken to its very core (by an evil nemesis appropriately called Barry) and it is Charlie’s battle to retain his faith that drives this narrative along.
From the outset this novel really made me think. The opening pages offer up an alternative creation story that expertly merges Darwin’s evolutionary theory with elements of Biblical story-telling, then mixes it all up with a mystical twist that truly exemplifies how clever Russell’s writing is. (Let’s be honest, if you heard the opening chapters of Genesis for the first time, it would all seem very strange – why should this be any less likely?) Like many fairy tales that have gone before, you can read this entire novel as a simple and uplifting tale of a young man’s journey to find his moral purpose, or you can choose to see greater meaning beneath the surface. For example, a recurring motif is the terrifying hole that runs through through the earth from Arctic to Antarctic, exerting a magnetic pull on people seeking to commit suicide. This chilling void is a vivid and powerful analogy for the abyss of depression, as anyone who has experienced mental health issues can testify. Ultimately it is only believing in magic that keeps people alive.
There are a number of persistent themes that resonated strongly with me: the way we tell stories to cope with adversity (my favourite being the hankie-bearing magician who arrives invisibly each time we cry to take our sadness away); the terrible consequences of trying to understand and thereby control magic (the worst being Mr Todd, who cuts things in half to see how they work – including his ex wife). But the ultimate message is that magic is everywhere and everything is magic – we just take it for granted. The way we breathe oxygen to feed our bodies is magic; the way the sun rises and sets each day is magic; the sheer fact I can read a book and my mind turns words into pictures is – you guessed it – magic. Russell provides a truly refreshing view of the world, powerfully reframing the things we take for granted each and every day. This book made me laugh, it made me cry and most of all it made me grateful for just being alive – and right now, I can’t ask for more than that.