Book Review: Magpie
written by Ashley Holloway
Incredibly social creatures whose lives frequently intersect with our own, magpies are often maligned for their predilection for collecting small, shiny objects; some might even say they are a bad omen. Aligned with the characteristics of a magpie, Bronwen Carson’s Magpie tucks little pockets of wisdom away in the pages for the reader to find in unexpected places whilst simultaneously highlighting our inherent need for social connection as humans.
Magpie is a powerful story of a woman searching for the pieces of themselves that became lost along the journey of life, knowing that life often offers a trail of breadcrumbs we don’t always want to follow. With an underlying ubiquitous theme of experiencing loss and searching for belonging, this book acknowledges that the past cannot be changed, nor can it be re-created. Sometimes the past is even forgotten. While this experience of repressed trauma has been featured in other books, this book presents a freshness and authenticity that engages the reader on a different level.
Though it takes some time to acclimate to the author’s narrative style, the internal dialogue of the narrator helps to distinguish past events from the present and offers insight into the mind of someone who looks at the world differently than most of us. Through this, the author successfully manages to build empathy, skillfully threading different ways of knowing, seeing, and being into the pages. Skillfully alluding to the narrator’s undiagnosed autism, by not actually naming this allows readers to develop a further understanding of neurodiversity.
With rich descriptions that appeal to all the senses, words are strung together as perfectly strung pearls on a necklace leaving the reader captivated. While at times the author assumes a universal understanding of places or cultural idiosyncrasies, this is quickly remedied by the narrator’s internal dialogue of self-deprecating remarks contrasted with wholesome self-encouragement. Through this, the author perfectly captures the thoughts and comments we all often have but often neglect to say out loud.
Overall, a beautiful read and well worthy of its success. In contrast to its namesake, this ‘magpie’ is only a harbinger of good.
Interview With the Author
AH: What/who does Abernathy represent?
BC: Abernathy “Nathy” showed up early on in the process of writing Magpie as a respite for my own mind as I developed Maggie’s adult experiences and perspectives. Nathy is the thread of authenticity buried deep within Maggie. He represents belonging, and how society defines the experience of it. The language of the natural world is one Maggie most understands and can innately hear, even when she is most isolated. The dormant tree outside her window is a part of that. I hoped giving Nathy a voice and a profound place in Young Maggie’s heart would connect the reader to the natural world as an inextricable aspect of being human.
AH: What was important to you in the incorporation of Dana and Ohma and their Tsalagi cultural heritage and views into Magpie?
BC: I wanted a way to discuss how often those of us who become lost along the way, or don’t “fit in” often romanticize other cultures, believing they know truths that will help us out of our own existential periphery. So often this results in a fixation upon how another culture’s ways of being or knowing might be of use to us, instead of an interest in actually learning about another’s culture. Appropriation has nothing to do with education, but in today’s fast-fast-now-now, curiosity for the sake of pure learning—not to some sort of endgame or benefit—is becoming rare. How problematic that is.
Over the few years it took to write Magpie, I’ve only now begun to scratch the surface of my understanding of Tsalagi culture, but much of what I have learned revolves around oneself in relation to others, and in relation to the natural world. What is often referred to as “the way of right relationship”—balancing one’s importance so it doesn’t drastically overshadow others or the natural world. As I wrote Magpie it became clear to me the only way I could include what I have begun to learn about Tsalagi culture without disrespecting those who truly live that experience was to write it from a non-Tsalagi, unreliable narrator’s view of a way of being that seems to hold answers, but looking in from outside those answers.
AH: What is the inspiration for this book?
BC: Certain questions have been wandering through my mind since I was a child about belonging and identity and how those are defined referentially. I wanted to delve into what can happen when those references shift dramatically, leaving us untethered to ourselves. The primary character, Maggie, is an undiagnosed woman on the autism spectrum. Dana is a journalist whose references were cut brutally short when she was a child. I wanted to talk about it undiagnosed autism without talking directly about it. Maggie’s sensory processing syndrome and childhood synesthesia place her more into the tribe of trees more than the tribe of humans. I wanted to write a story about that truth, and about how difficult it is to create an authentic bespoke identity when we become untethered to the references that we use to define ourselves.
Magpie will be available in February 2023. It was the Unleash Press 2021 Book Prize Award-winner. Our 2022 title will be announced soon.
About Ashley Holloway
Residing in Mohkinstsis, Ashley Holloway teaches healthcare leadership at Bow Valley College in Calgary, AB. She is a nurse with a Master of Public Health, a graduate diploma in Global Leadership, with further studies in intercultural communication and international development. Ashley’s work has appeared in the Calgary Public Library Short Story Dispenser, The Nashwaak Review, The Globe and Mail, Magna Publications, The Prairie Journal, Alberta's CARE Magazine, Unleash Press, with regular contributions to Lead Read Today; forthcoming publications include Flash Fiction Magazine (Jan 2023). Her writing has recently been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Ashley also reads manuscripts and provides editorial support for Unleash Press.