The ordinary inhabitants of a small-town council estate turn out to hold extraordinary secrets in Paul Magrs' strangely compelling novel, Could It Be Magic?. Set in the grey wastelands of the north-east, Magrs has looked beyond the ravages of boom and bust Britain--with its council ghettos and widespread unemployment--to reveal a community brimming with passions. At first glance, the leading characters are exceptional only in their mediocrity: Elsie, old before her time, weighed down by a crippled son and depressive husband, whose only solace lies in a bottle of gin; tattooed Mark, who spends his days bodybuilding and nights babysitting his ex-wife's new baby; Penny, who left school too soon and fills her house with students; Andy whose gay lover left him for a better life. But the arrival of Penny's Mam on New Year's Eve (with her own startling secret) sets off a chain of astonishing events. Fantasy mingles with the mundane until it's hard to know what to accept as commonplace and what to dismiss as trivial. A frisson of sexual energy sparks from council roof to satellite dish as Magrs' characters discover their innermost secrets and how to live life to the full.
Magic realism set on a council estate in the North East of England, really? Yes, really. If you consider magic realism to be where magic appears in an otherwise realistic world. Not if you are one of those who subscribe to a definition based on two cultures. There is one culture in this book: that of the British working class.
And does it work? Absolutely. This is a very realistic portrayal of the lives of the inhabitants of a council estate in a bleak town sitting near a motorway. Each character is drawn in detail and with love, but in such a way that you don't get overwhelmed with back story. You come to understand and even like people that in real life you might consider avoiding, such as the local busybodies. I don't know Magrs' background but I would guess that he grew up in a place like his fictional Phoenix Court. There is a sense of unease about the place, a sense of threat partly from the gang of lads at the Forsyth's house, partly from the ever present desire on the part of most of the inhabitants to know everything about everyone else and worse to meddle. There is a sense of hopes unfulfilled, lives going nowhere, a desire to get away that for most of the novel is not realized. And yet this is a community and, as the ending reveals, one that continues to call its members back.
The magic just slips in. The first time it happens you have to check that you really did read that. Then slowly it grows. In Magrs' book there is clearly a link between magic and sex. The leopard boy is a product of a one-night stand between Andy and the tattooed Mark. The clubfoot of Elsie's son Craig appears to be cured following fellatio with Penny. I was really impressed by how well Magrs writes about sex, both gay and heterosexual. There is a lovely sex scene at the end between Fran and her husband, which concludes with: tonight is quite a shock to her. She had forgotten how she and Frank were, after all, experts in each other.
The Independent's reviewer Michael Arditti has rather snootily dubbed Magrs' style as magic soap opera and compares it unfavourably with the magic in Allende's work. Soap operas play an important part in the lives of the characters and indeed in a key moment in the plot at the end of the book. But that is only right. Soap operas are important, as Andy's grandfather commented when he first saw Coronation Street: It's like real life! They're talking like real people on here.