Real magic: Paul Magrs’ ‘Hunky Dory’

❉ Paul Magrs celebrates his silver jubilee as a writer with this love letter to the art of telling stories…

“Hunky Dory is a book about finding happiness by being true to yourself, not in a sickly way of cheap agony aunt advice, but in the very human realization that lying to yourself can only ever make you dissatisfied. It has the warmth and humour of the northern soap opera before Eastenders, Brookside and Emmerdale’s producers found the mayhem of misery and murder to be ratings gold…”

It’s all about magic really.

Not the Paul Daniels deceiving of the eye, nor the flashy pyrotechnics of the likes of Gandalf or Merlin. Everyday magic, the type that every child knows you can see if you screw your eyes up and look at things the right way. It’s there in the tattooed or pregnant men and the witches of Phoenix Court, in the skewed world of Iris Wildthyme and her fresh take on the base materials of Doctor Who, or in the Doctor’s visits to Hyspero, the Obverse or Nest Cottage. It’s there in the Whitby of Goth Mapp and Lucia Brenda and Effie, in the bookshop in Exchange, and in his David Bowie true story Stardust and Snow. Most of all, it’s there in his fascination with the wide-eyed wonder of Christmas. It runs through Paul Magrs’ writing like the first and best stick of rock you ever had on a seaside holiday.

And it’s very much there in his latest novel, Hunky Dory which comes with the strapline of being “about storytelling, love, friendship and finding your place in the world”. Hunky Dory is the story of what happens when Dan, the owner of the titular café, suddenly keels over and dies. He leaves a wife, Elena, a daughter, Dodie, and a café named after Bowie’s most beloved album and the novel tells their story, and that of the gang of misfits who congregate around them. Elena and Dodie are bright, vivid lead characters: Elena a loud, brassy Bet Lynch given to tall tales who’s signed up to a Creative Writing MA course to write about – what else? – herself, and Dodie someone who life, for no particularly good reason, has passed by, but still has the chance to change that.

Dodie is the heart of the novel, a genuinely good person who blossoms over the course of her romance with budding science-fiction writer Oliver. It’s a testament to Magrs’ talent for character writing that Dodie feels as human and relatable as the far more overtly selfish characters who surround her. As with other characters, she’s part of a joyously filthy world, with the book’s various romances underpinned by some healthily riotous shagging. That earthy vividness and joy found in the characters grounds a novel which features visits to SF conventions, a cruise liner sinking, a kidnapping and a fantastical finale.

Magrs also finds room for a queer love triangle between Ian, who sells old paperbacks and comics in the café, his boyfriend Warren, and an older lover Michael. One of the delights of the book is how that triangle complicates and resolves in a satisfying but unpredictable way, refusing to conform to the stereotypical notion that in a choice of lovers, at least one person should have an unhappy ending.  It’s very pleasing that the claim to be about finding your place in the world is as thoroughly fulfilled as that of the other elements of the cover strapline: while it might not feel like some characters get the ending their actions deserved, the novel’s end sees them in a place which feels entirely appropriate for them.

In the end Hunky Dory is an absolutely appropriate title: it’s the album where Bowie found the band and musical direction which sparked his dilettante, magpie mind into a distinctive artistic approach. Hunky Dory is a book about finding happiness by being true to yourself, not in a sickly way of cheap agony aunt advice, but in the very human realization that lying to yourself can only ever make you dissatisfied. It has the warmth and humour of the northern soap opera before Eastenders, Brookside and Emmerdale’s producers found the mayhem of misery and murder to be ratings gold: The now seemingly quaint notion that characters rather than events are the beating heart of any drama and that drama and humour are conjured up in the space between characters you want to invest hours of your time with because fundamentally, they’re fun to be with. Yes, it’s a love letter to the act of telling stories and to Levenshulme but in the end it’s all about love and friendship being the absolute stuff of life itself.

Not so much magic realism as real magic. And Hunky Dory has it in spades.


❉ ‘Hunky Dory: A Novel about Storytelling, Friendship, Love… and About Finding Your Place in the World ‘ by Paul Magrs was published 22 January 2021, and is available from Amazon UK in Kindle format, RRP £2.99 and Paperback, RRP £12.00.  DISCLAIMER: These are affiliate links. You pay the same price you would otherwise, but I make a small commission when you use this link which helps support this website’s running costs. Thank you!

Learn more about Paul Magrs, his writing and his inspirations, in our Cult Q & A feature from December 2016. Oh! And there’s his blog – www.lifeonmagrs.blogspot.co.uk

❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series and co-editor of Me and the Starman, (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon)

Header image: Detail from Paul Magrs’ ‘Silver Jubilee’, artwork by the author.

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