Not long ago I was browsing in a local bookshop and came across a book by Magnus Mills that I hadn’t realised existed. Excited (and also a little ashamed that I’d allowed a book by an author I really enjoy to slip under my radar), I decided there and then I needed to write something about him on Girl, Reading since in two years on the blog he’s never featured.
I’ve accumulated many bookseller friends during my years of working in and around bookshops and a pretty high proportion of them have read and admired Magnus Mills. Outside of that group, though, I’ve not met a single person who’s tried him or, in most cases, even heard of him, and I wonder why that is. There are definitely some books and authors that have a disproportionately large fan base within the book trade, but the reason is often, to me at least, a mystery. While I wouldn’t say that Mills could be classified as having mass appeal, I do think he is deserving of a wider readership for his clever plotting, social satire and for the unique tone he brings to his writing; start reading a Mills novel blind and I think you’d soon know exactly who the author was.
So, what kind of novels does he write and just why are they so good? They’re quirky, offbeat, darkly comic and often slightly sinister, but they’re not easy to categorise – if I had to pin down their overriding theme it would be that they’re strange without the reader being able to fathom quite why. I’ve read most of them now, and they all feature fairly ordinary characters, but those characters are operating against backdrops that seem slightly out of kilter. The author possesses an incredible skill: he can make you feel incredibly tense and uneasy but if asked, you’d have a hard time explaining the reason. There is no hint of anything fantastical or supernatural; these are worlds – often very mundane worlds – that we know… and yet don’t. To me, the settings often feel somewhat akin to a dream; all the elements of the world with which we’re presented are recognisable, and yet they feel as if they’ve been put together in a way that just isn’t quite right. Many of the novels also evoke a real feeling of frustration which can on occasion evolve into a sense of mounting panic, since a recurring motif is that of a character who’s trapped in some way by a situation, to the point where you’re willing them to find a way out and for events to conspire in their favour. And “Explorers of the New Century” (my least favourite as it happens) contains a twist so unexpected that I still remember the effect it had on me as I read it even though it was years ago.
Which one should you start with if you’ve never tried him before? The two most well-known and also the most acclaimed of his books are “All Quiet on the Orient Express” and “The Restraint of Beasts” but I particularly enjoyed “The Scheme for Full Employment” – if you’ve ever had the feeling you were wasting your life in a dead-end job then just wait until you read this! I know this little article hasn’t come anywhere near to selling his writing to the extent he deserves, but I think it’s a testament to his ingenuity as an author that he is so difficult to write about. The only way to really appreciate and understand the books is to read them for yourself, so add him to your list of reading resolutions for 2017!