Reviewed by: Keith Nixon
Approximate word count: 45-50,000 words
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Dr Sharon Baillie lives in Scotland. She has had short stories published in Morpheus Tales and the Reader's Digest website. Her debut novel Magenta Opium was written entirely on her BlackBerry during her commute to university.
Veronica Dempsey divides her time between disposing of a body and inventing a new form of opium in her loft.
Where to start with Magenta Opium? First, I absolutely hated it. The opening chapter was horribly confusing. My initial view was the author was attempting a Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time approach with Veronica – police come knocking at the door and this is explored in an intricate and bizarre fashion. In particular the words ‘door’ and ‘letterbox’ are used incredibly repetitively 24 times in a couple of pages.
Likewise with the door, although able to be a door at standard temperatures and pressures, its door-like qualities are not altogether independent of temperature. At 800 degrees (Celsius or Fahrenheit, choose your poison) the door would be a doorway plus mess. At -200 it would be a wall; immovable. This is precisely why the Inuits didn’t invent alloyed metals.
I really struggle with repetition. It can work, like in Catch-22, but the writing has to be skilful. Guess what? It’s not, this is way off the scale.
This repetitive approach is used continuously throughout the book. Routine is used 30 in 144 words as well – there are others. The author also tries a Vernon God Little approach using Veronica’s initials in a (very large) variety of words. There’s also a person called Smyth who often reminds us it’s spelt with a Y (yes the capital is deliberate) – even though I can read that for myself. This habit of repeating points already made is also often, erm repeated. I don’t know why.
The ‘story’ centres on Veronica for some reason deciding to make a variant of
opium. Apparently, she’s a genius, but mad (hence the crazy prose, more of that shortly). After the door incident we learn that Veronica’s mother has been living in the loft, unknown to husband and daughter for over 8 years (yeah, right). Now for another example:
The motherfound woman, once a motherlost girl, and wifefound man, happy and pungent wifelost man the day before, were taken in for questioning.
This is because the presumed dead woman living in the loft has been selling counterfeit DVD’s and partaking in online porn. And the family didn’t know for over 8 years (yeah, right). Veronica’s mother ended up in the loft because she was going to run off with a man, but after a tryst she decides against it:
Fortunately for Jessica all he wanted was a go of her. Unfortunately for Jessica all he wanted was a go of her. Unfortunately for Jessica he wasn’t very good. But fortunately for Jessica he wasn’t very good.
The opium development leads to a death and then disposal of the body. The problem is if the focus was on this thread only the book would (mercifully) be only a few thousand words long. When the opium works Veronica says:
It worked. Did it work? What worked? It did. But did it? It did. What did it do? How did it work? Chemistry. Why did it work? Magic. It did work though, eh? It worked. Did it work? How? Chemistry. Why? Magic. Because. And then. Ha! It worked! Stone me! They might. It worked. It did. It did. It did.
There is even a chapter late in the book where the author describes activities such as ‘ties were tied’, developments were developed’, ‘traffic light changed from green to amber to red…(and back again several times)’ – this goes on for page after page with the summation at the end: ‘In short, life in the world progressed for several weeks, unaware of the life of Veronica (where do we go from here?) Dempsey et al.’ I don’t know why.
There are also little footnotes explaining comments, films, and odd little made up words like interpium (internet opium, which was explained several times too). Here are a couple more of the writing examples I found so frustrating. Just a few of the many, many that I could have used:
The void that wasn’t really there that he paid a big-strapping-woman to fill was not filled with sex. Not in the classical word sex.
13 people liked this, 8 people commented but none of the comments commented that the status would have benefitted from a comma.
Sofia pulled Proctor down on top of her and kissed him. His rare cooked steak complimented her Pinot Grigio and their superstring section crescendoed together.
And perhaps my ‘favourite’:
”Let’s get a penguin as a wedding present. We’ll call him Frederick on Sundays and Freddie the rest of the week. I don’t mind if he can’t dance, we’ll still love him. Or her. She can be Freddie as well as and Fredericka on a Sunday. Every new couple should have a penguin. We’ll eat shrimp vol-au-vents and drink Chardonnay together and watch a flatscreen television and Freddie will hug me while you’re out at work.” They sealed the deal with some funky sex followed by dinner at Luigi and Maria’s house where they broke the good news.
It wasn’t just me, I kept reading excerpts out to my wife until she told me to go away. So I stayed up late to finish Magenta Opium otherwise I wouldn’t have slept thinking about the story. Although I’m sure the author saw the point of all this the last comment belongs to the prose:
The rambling woman was still confusing [her] though.
Really awful prose.
None to speak of.
Rating: * One Star