Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘Screwtop Thompson’ by Magnus Mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 128 pages; 2010.

There are no Magnus Mills’ novels left for me to read, so I thought I would give his short story collection Screwtop Thompson a go, having picked it up at a second-hand book sale earlier in the year for the princely sum of $3.

Mills is one of my favourite writers. He’s got a style all of his own. Part fable, part absurdist. Always original and hugely humorous.

He is an expert at looking at our overly complicated society (or British culture), honing in on a particular issue and then reducing it down to something super simple, as if to say, have you ever thought about things like this? (And the answer is always, “no”.)

In his novels, he has covered everything from bus timetables to record collecting, British exploration to time-keeping, and always with an eye to the ridiculous.

This short story collection is more of the same but has a domestic, rather than societal, focus.

For instance, in the opening story, Only When the Sun Shines Brightly, an enormous sheet of plastic — “industrial wrapping, possibly twenty yards in area” — gets caught high up on a viaduct wall and causes noise and disturbance as it flaps in the wind. A business owner who works below the viaduct tries various methods of reaching the plastic to pull it down, all to no avail. People complain about the eyesore and the noise, but nothing is ever done about it. Then, when it is miraculously removed, the narrator of the story complains it’s now too quiet to sleep!

In another, At Your Service, a short man called Mr Wee (LOL) asks his friend to help cut a few branches off a tree that is obscuring the view from his second-floor flat. Getting access to the tree — “a great overgrown thorny thing” — proves farcical, but when at last the bowsaw is used, Mr Wee is not happy: so much light now floods into his flat he has to keep the blinds down!.

Another story, Once in a Blue Moon, is a bit more off-kilter.

My mother’s house was under siege. One chill Friday evening in November I arrived to find the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert. The police had blocked the street at both ends. A helicopter was circling overhead, and there were snipers hidden in the garden.

The narrator manages to convince his mother to let him into the house — after she’s shot out the upper-storey bedroom window — by asking her what she’s planning to do at Christmas. Her guard down, she invites him in, makes him a cuppa and answers his question — all the while keeping the gun levelled at him. It’s a quirky story, but not out of keeping with the kinds of absurd situations Mills normally puts in his novels.

My favourite story, Hark the Herald, will resonate with anyone who’s stayed in a British B&B and endured the passive-aggressive nature of the hosts, in this case, Mr Sedgefield and his partner, who put on a polite act, all the while treating their guest with thinly veiled contempt. It’s Christmas, and the narrator is looking forward to socialising with other guests, but despite being promised he will meet them on numerous occasions, he always seems to miss them, begging the question, do they even exist or are they a figment of Mr Sedgefield’s imagination?

Anyway, you get the idea…

There are 11 stories in this quirky little collection, most of which are only 10 or so pages long, so the volume is a quick read. Some of them feel a bit thin, almost as if they are sketches rather than fully formed ideas, and occasionally the endings are too abrupt.

On the whole, I’d say Screwtop Thompson was for true Mills’ aficionados, rather than for those who have never read his work before.

Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills (with playlist)

Forensic records society by magnus mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 186 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Magnus Mills takes the quintessential British obsession with music and turns it on its head in The Forensic Records Society. It is typical Mills fare: soporific, surreal and filled with deadpan humour.

It is about two friends who start a club called — you guessed it — The Forensic Records Society. It meets every Monday at 9pm in the backroom of the local pub, The Half Moon. The idea is for each member to bring along three 7-inch vinyl singles, which they listen to (“in strict rotation”) on an old portable record player. There is to be no discussion, no commentary, no judgement of other people’s tastes. The idea is to listen to the music forensically.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Not everyone follows the rules. A rival group forms. A splinter group soon follows. And the rivalry between each society becomes more heightened — and more absurd — as this short, quirky story proceeds to its humorous conclusion.

An eccentric tale

I’m a big fan of Magnus Mills’ work and I’ve reviewed all his novels. This one is just as idiosyncratic, eccentric and fable-like as the rest.

I love the way it pokes fun at music obsessives and the sometimes snobby nature of those who collect records. The way that James, the co-founder of the society, wields his rule book brought to mind a funny experience of my own. In the early 2000s I was at a Peter Gabriel concert, in the round, at Wembley Arena. A family of four were sitting in front of me: mum, dad and their two sons, aged around 8 and 10. The boys were forbidden from dancing or singing along to any of the songs. “You must listen to them carefully,” instructed the dad. “There must be no singing!” And boy, did he keep them to this self-imposed rule.

I could just imagine this chap heading up The Forensic Records Society.

The book also pokes fun at that quintessential British establishment — the pub — and highlights how having a few drinks with friends can seem to make time speed up: you never quite know where the hours go.

The story also highlights how blokes bond over music; they don’t even need to talk about it. This is in stark contrast to the all-women rival group that forms — the Confessions Record Society (“bring a record of your choice and confess!”) — which encourages members to explain the emotional connection they have to particular songs.

Classic Mills

Like other Magnus Mills’ novels, there is little in the way of descriptive detail (I think he has a special aversion to adjectives), characters are only distinguishable from each other by their (rather ordinary) names and there’s no backstory. The reader is simply plunged into a world that looks and feels familiar to our own but isn’t quite normal. The fun is trying to figure out what is going on beneath the surface; what point is Mills trying to make about our society?

There’s a little smidgen of mystery in this one, too — what is the unbranded single everyone keeps wanting to borrow; what is Alice, the barmaid’s, secret; and what does the taxman have to do with anything — which adds an extra level of intrigue.

All in all, The Forensic Records Society is classic Mills. If you’ve never read him before, this is just a good a place as any to start.

The Forensic Records Society Playlist

The book is littered with song titles (the performers are never mentioned, nor the genre), so I thought it would be fun to create a YouTube playlist of various tunes that were name-checked in the novel. In no particular order, they are:

‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (Joy Division)

‘Mr Brightside’ (The Killers)

‘The Day Before You Came’ (Abba)

‘On the Road Again’ (Willie Nelson)

‘Are “Friends” Electric’ (Gary Numan)

‘Substitute’ (The Who)

‘The Universal’ (Blur)

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, satire

‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ by Magnus Mills


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Publishing; 224 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s no secret that I am a Magnus Mills fan, so I was naturally keen to read his latest book, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, as soon as it came thudding through the door. It’s been almost four years since his last novel, but it turned out to be worth the wait, for this is another profound story characterised by Mills’ typical bare-boned prose, tongue-in-cheek humour and incisive commentary on the foibles of human beings.

A tented village

The story revolves around a large irregularly-shaped field — known as The Great Field — situated in the bend of a “broad, meandering river”.

Dotted across this lush, green field are several tents of various size, shape and description, but over time more and more tents appear as people arrive to take advantage of the beautiful views, fresh air and quietude. But as the population of this quiet backwater steadily increases, disputes over territory, views and resources arise.

When a trench is created under the guise of drainage control for the (always damp) south-east corner, it doesn’t take long for some inhabitants to realise it’s actually a wall — or a defensive rampart, depending on your point of view — designed to secure the best corner of the field for a select group: everyone else must simply move north.

If you think this sounds a little like a metaphor for Britain you’d probably be right. I read this surreal story trying to figure out its meaning — was it a fable about community? immigration? British history? — before I decided it could almost be anything you want it to be: it’s charm lies in its ability to be interpreted in a myriad of ways. It’s clever and smart and even if you don’t want to have to think about the points Mills might be making you can simply read the novel for what it is: a delightfully quirky and eccentric tale about a bunch of people living in a field and trying to get by the best they know how. I really loved it.

More reviews of Mills’ work

I’ve reviewed all of Mills’ previous novels on the site — simply click on the book titles to read the review: The Restraint of Beasts (1998), All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), Three to See the King (2001), The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005), The Maintenance of Headway (2009) and A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (2011).

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher

‘A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In’ by Magnus Mills


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 276 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If we ever needed a novel to satirise the current malaise of the British Empire — complete with unhappy public sector workers, crippling debt and politicos looking after their own interests — then who better than to offer it up than Magnus Mills? A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is Mills’ seventh novel, and it’s typical Mills fare.

If you’ve never read anything by Mills before, you need to prepare yourself in advance. I promise that you will have never encountered anything quite like a Mills novel before.

He writes in a completely stripped back way, using short, simplistic sentences. On face value, these may seem dull and monotonous, but you can never accuse him of being boring. That’s because it’s up to the reader to figure out what’s going on — in many cases, it’s the things that Mills doesn’t say that make his stories so powerful.

Mills’ stories are also peopled entirely by men, there is little or no characterisation (although you will probably recognise people you know — officials and jobsworths primarily), little or no descriptions of people or places, and the plots are superficial.

But as allegories or fables, you can’t get any better. And as far as black comedies go, you’re in for a real treat.

Poking fun at the feudal system

In A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In Mills’ tackles the feudal system, which is not a topic you’d generally associate with humour. Yet in Mills’ hands it becomes the funniest thing since, well, the feudal system.

The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed character, who is Principal Composer to the Imperial Court. Despite never having played a note in his life, he is “supreme leader” of the imperial orchestra. He clearly isn’t up for the job, but it doesn’t matter, because the conductor, a very talented musician, does all the work for which he can take credit.

The Principal Composer sits on an eight-member cabinet presided over by his Exalted Highness, The Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields.

Absentee king

Unfortunately, His Highness seems to have gone missing, and because he never turns up to the weekly cabinet meeting no decisions about the empire, which is bestridden by ongoing problems, can be made. So the officers-of-state, who are all equal in the hierarchy, muddle along as best they can.

Any form of cooperation between departments is ruled out, so the problems — an unreliable postal system, a lack of money in circulation (it’s all being “reserved for a rainy day” by the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and an imperial telescope that only works if the Astronomer Royal has a sixpence to put in the slot — are never sorted.

A series of idiotic decisions are made. Chief among these is an imperial edict that arrives via post from the absentee emperor. He orders that the sun must set at five o’clock all year round, but the only way to make that happen is to ensure all clocks within Greater Fallowfields are put forward by two minutes every day. This means a great deal of work for one particular cabinet member — who moans and groans about it  — but for several others it’s seen as a wonderful opportunity to enjoy tea — lemon curd and toasted soldiers — in the library to watch the sunset every day.

A crumbling empire

Mills paints a convincing portrait of an empire, a former maritime supremacy, now stuck in its ways, failing to modernise or make decisions with the best interests of its citizens in mind.

Typically, there’s a lot of deadpan humour (when one cabinet member points out that there’s “absolutely no kind of spiritual, theological or pastoral representative”, a colleague responds, “Thank God”) and bitter irony (the cabinet spends much of its time rehearsing a play which is an “example of the feudal system in perfect working order — until someone tampers with it”).

But it all comes to a head when a (literal) threat on the horizon is noted: foreigners are building a trainline to Greater Fallowfields and an immigration boom seems imminent — or does it?

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is a seemingly impossible mix of the odd and endearing. It’s playful and fun, but with a serious undercurrent running between the lines. The characters are delightfully eccentric and the way in which the empire is run will, at times, remind you of the terrible bureaucracy and inflexibility of systems here in the UK.

All in all, it is a wonderful, comic read that is bound to appeal to new readers and Mills’ fans alike.

More reviews of Mills’ work

I’ve reviewed all of Mills’ previous novels on the site: The Restraint of Beasts (1998), All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), Three to See the King (2001), The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005) and The Maintenance of Headway (2009).


Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, satire

‘The Maintenance of Headway’ by Magnus Mills


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 152 pages; 2009.

You know you’ve really enjoyed a book when you titter your way through it, which is exactly what I did when I eagerly devoured Magnus Mills‘ latest novel, The Maintenance of Headway.

Mills, who is one of my favourite authors, is, admittedly, not for everyone. He writes in a deliberately understated way, with an almost childlike naivety. He doesn’t bother with extraneous detail, because everything moves forward chiefly through dialogue. This allows him to really get to the heart of the matter, which, in most of his novels, is this simple premise: English life is plagued by bureaucracy and officialdom for no other reason than it keeps people in employment.

In The Maintenance of Headway, Mills turns his scornful eye towards the running of the London bus network. (Mills himself was a bus driver when his first novel, The Restraint of Beasts, was published.) Well, I suspect it’s London for the city isn’t named, but the description of the street system — “The streets are higgledy-piggledy and narrow; there are countless squares and circuses, zebra crossings and pelicans. Go east from the arch and you’ve got twenty-three sets of traffic lights in a row” — is unmistakable. I’m also convinced that the “bejewelled thoroughfare” (“a great canyon of flagship stores stretching side by side for nearly a mile”) mentioned in the text is actually London’s Oxford Street.

As to the story, there’s not really much to it. In fact, it’s pretty much devoid of plot. The book is essentially a satire that pokes fun at the overly regimented (and somewhat unsuccessful) way in which the Board of Transport runs its buses, where “there’s no excuse for being early” and everyone bemoans the loss of the Venerable Platform Bus (which can only be another way of describing the now defunct but rather iconic Routemaster) with its conductors and no doors. It covers the running battle between the bus drivers, who just want to drive buses to their required destinations with a minimum of fuss, and the inspectors, who meddle with the timetables and routes under the guise of “maintaining headway” .

Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny, particularly if you have a dry sense of humour. The wit comes chiefly through the conversations held between drivers on their tea-breaks. I was rather partial to the rogue driver, Jason, with his reckless attitude to passenger safety. In a discussion about passenger’s who deliberately ring the bell with no intention of getting off, Jason says:

‘If they keep doing it on my bus I give them some treatment with the brake and the accelerator. Rough them up a bit:  teach them a lesson.’
‘What about all the innocent people?’ I asked. ‘The ones who haven’t touched the bell?’
‘Tough, isn’t it?’ said Jason.

If you’ve ever experienced the joys of being a bus passenger, there’s a lot in this funny little novel you’ll recognise. And next time you wait ages for a bus and then three come along at once, you’ll know exactly who to blame.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, satire

‘Explorers of the New Century’ by Magnus Mills

Explorers of the new century by

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 186 pages; 2006.

Magnus Mills is a cheeky little scamp. With a big black beating heart. He lulls you into a false sense of security before dealing you a killer blow. And you can’t help but love him for it.

Explorers of the New Century, his fifth novel, starts out as a rather fun, light-hearted story about two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furthest point from civilisation”. One group — Scandinavian, small and efficient — follows a dry riverbed; the second — British, large and disorganised — takes a different route across an endless landscape of scree.

The narrative plods along (pun fully intended) for what seems like forever. Not much seems to happen. (Admittedly, I considered abandoning the book, because it was so slow and dull.) The Scandinavians make good progress but are constantly worried they’ll get pipped at the post, while the Brits get mired in bickering and make poor leadership decisions.

And then, somewhere around the halfway mark, Mills throws a curve ball that makes you rub your eyes and re-read the sentence to make sure you didn’t misunderstand it. Suddenly the book takes a rather kooky and surreal turn, and you begin to realise Mills must have had a great time writing this book. Either that, or he was hallucinating when he cooked up the plot.

Then, just as you’re coming to grips with this new turn of events, he delivers another surprise twist that turns everything, and I mean everything, on its head. The story, which began as a rather pedestrian (there I go with the puns again, sorry about that) narrative now becomes rather dark and sinister. It makes you see everything that’s already happened before in a new and disturbing light. It’s brilliant.

Now, for obvious reasons, I can’t reveal the exact nature of these two “twists”, but I can say that Explorers of the New Century is one of those deceptively simple novels that is part allegory, part fable and stays with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Crucially, there’s a lot of deadpan humour in it too, which breaks up the monotony of the anorexic text. Most of it is quite subtle, but there was one exchange that caused me to laugh out loud. The British group has just set up camp and is fantasising about scones with “lashings of jam and butter”.

The tent had four occupants. Sargent was in his normal position by the door. Next to him was Summerfield, already fast asleep. Then came Seddon, and at the far end was Plover. The latter had adopted his usual pose. He was lying on his side, outstretched with his legs crossed and his head popped on one hand, facing the doorway.
He waited a moment and then said, “I think you’ll find that the  correct pronunciation is ‘scones’.”
“‘Scones’?” repeated Sargent.
“‘Scones,'” repeated Plover.
“Well, I’ve never heard that before. We’ve always said ‘scones’ where I come from.”
“Same here,” agreed Seddon.
“I assure you the word is ‘scones’,” said Plover. “You should look it up when you get the opportunity.”

Trust Mills to capture the absurdity of English people arguing about the English language!

For what it’s worth, this is a hugely enjoyable book which can be easily read in just a couple of hours, perfect if you’re looking for a quick palette cleanser between novels. It’s typical Mills fare, if a little darker than usual, so if you like this you’re sure to enjoy his back catalogue, most of which is reviewed here.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher

‘The Scheme for Full Employment’ by Magnus Mills


Fiction – hardcover; Flamingo; 255 pages; 2003.

Reading a book by Magnus Mills is a bit like stepping into a parallel universe: everything looks and feels the same but there’s something a little off key that you can’t quite put your finger on. The Scheme for Full Employment, Mills’ fourth novel, is no exception.

The Scheme is essentially a distribution business in which goods are transported from depot to depot in a vehicle called a UniVan.

The UniVan was a glorious creation! With its distinctive gunmetal paintwork and silvery livery, its bull-nosed profile, running boards and chrome front grill, it had become a celebrated national icon, recognised and loved by all! Moreover, it represented a great idea that not only worked, but was seen to work!

Becoming an employee on The Scheme, which runs like clockwork and offers eight hours’ pay for eight hours’ work, is held up as a pinnacle of achievement. What better way can one earn a living than driving a van in a courteous, efficient and timely manner from depot to depot delivering unspecified goods to a rigorous and ordered schedule?

But the rigour and order with which The Scheme is renowned comes under threat by revelations that some workers aren’t doing their full eight hour days — some are being signed off for an “early swerve” on a semi-regular basis, so instead of finishing bang on 4.30pm some are going home a half-hour earlier! This authorised skiving is not approved by those employees who believe that such actions will destroy The Scheme’s regimented order they love so much, and a strike — the first in The Scheme’s history — ensues.

It’s not hard to see that The Scheme for Full Employment is actually a parody of the capitalist system, poking fun, as it does, at everything from unionised labour to the sheer monotony of many people’s working lives. It’s peopled by characters that derive meaning and purpose to their existence by the dullest of jobs and responsibilities. And it calls into question the hollow nature of businesses, which are set up purely to keep someone in employment.

The monotonous routine of The Scheme is echoed by Mills’ own dead-pan humour, his repetitive writing style and his often dull descriptions of people and places.

Just as his earlier novels — The Restraint of Beasts, All Quiet on the Orient Express and Three to See the King — featured a working-class narrator as the unwitting hero of the piece, The Scheme for Full Employment offers up a similarly lovable if naive (unnamed) person trying to make sense of a strange and alienating world.

While not as humorous and a tad more symbolic than previous efforts, this is still a recommended read for those who want to try something deliciously — and strangely — different.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting

‘The Restraint of Beasts’ by Magnus Mills

Restraint of beasts

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 215 pages; 1999.

This is the type of book that will make you look at high tensile agricultural fencing in an entirely new way. I’m not joking. And it might make you think twice about refusing a third helping of sausages at breakfast, too.

A highly unusual tale written in a highly unusual style, The Restraint of Beasts (the title refers to what a fence does) is a black comedy like no other.

It tells the story of two itinerant Scots fencers, the pub-obsessed, cash-strapped Tam and Richie, who are dispatched to England to build a fence. With them goes the narrator, their foreman, who dreads spending the next six weeks or so living on a farm in a squalid caravan with his often silent and moody charges.

Here the trio spend their days bashing in fence posts and threading high-tensile wire between them, usually in dismal weather conditions. Their evenings are spent wolfing down cold baked beans straight from the can and then spending what little money they have in the nearest pub. It’s all very dull, mediocre and treadmill like.

This is echoed in Magnus Mills deliciously anorexic prose that borders on being completely turgid. There are pages and pages where nothing very much seems to happen. And then — POW! — something incredibly hilarious occurs that makes all the boredom preceding it worthwhile.

Mills, who famously got a huge advance to write this book, knows how to deliver a good punch line — all the while keeping a straight face. He is a master at conveying moods and atmospheres in just a few words. His dialogue is particularly good, allowing his characters to move the story along through speech, more than action.

He is able to turn the ordinary into something sinister in a way that defies description, so that you’re never quite sure whether a terrible event is going to happen or whether the author is just playing with your sense of the dramatic.

I loved this book, but I have to say I much preferred Mills’ later efforts — Three to See the King and All Quiet on the Orient Express. Still, The Restraint of Beasts impressed the critics upon publication — it was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize and the 1998 Whitbread Award.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher

‘Three to see the King’ by Magnus Mills


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 167 pages; 2001.

Magnus Mills’ Three to see the King is a fable about human relationships and human happiness. Is the grass greener on the other side? And if you conform to society’s expectations will you feel like you belong?

This is a simple tale told in Mills’ characteristic stripped back prose; it’s almost like reading a children’s story, except the adult complexities resonate off the page. In fact it’s the things that Mills does not say that reveal so much about the characters in this little gem of a book.

The narrator himself is a simple character, happy to live in a house made of tin on a vast, red sandy plain in relative isolation and obscurity. But one day a woman arrives at his door and moves in. Initially he feels unsettled by this, but eventually he gets used to her presence and a comfortable companionship ensues.

Then his neighbour announces he’s moving further afield to join a community being built by the great Michael Hawkins.But the narrator refuses to accept that Michael’s way of life is any better than his own, and, in making such an admission, inadvertently offends his neighbour who is unable to believe his short-sightedness.

Within weeks everyone living within a five-mile radius of the narrator has packed up their houses and moved to Michael’s village. The narrator watches a never-ending stream of people wandering across the red sandy plain, pieces of tin strapped to their backs, as they head towards nirvana down the road.

Before long curiosity gets the better of him and he too goes in search of greener pastures. . . with devastating (and hilarious) consequences.

I loved this book and sniggered all the way through it. But don’t be fooled by the pared down language; there’s a lot going on here. It’s a wonderful allegory, part horror story, part comedy and I defy you not to read it without smiling at least once. These kinds of books are good for the soul.