Reviewed by Stephen Aryan
And what with satanic beauty salons, roving psychic investigators and the frankly terrifying owner of the Christmas Hotel there’s plenty to watch. But the oddest thing in Whitby may well be Brenda herself. With her terrible scars, her strange lack of a surname and the fact that she takes two different shoe sizes, Brenda should know that people as, well, unique as she is just aren’t destined for a quiet life.
This book is a delicious mix, a blend of the Ladies Detective Agency and a gothic comedy. I flew through it in a few days because it was so easy to read also just a lot of really good fun. The book is split up into several smaller connected stories featuring the adventures of the mysterious Brenda and her friend Effie. Magrs has picked a wonderful location for such a weird and sometimes spooky story and he uses it to its full, with many a nod to its associations in literature.
My favourite character has to be Brenda. She is a fascinating woman and wonderfully written as a very lonely and tragic figure who has lived for a long time and accomplished so many wild things it would probably make Hugh Heffner jealous. But now she’s much older and she wants a quiet life. And most of all she just wants to be left alone and not noticed by anyone because there is much that is unusual about her. I won’t spoil the surprise, although you can probably guess from the synopsis above, but once her real identity is known you realise there is so much to play with and so many areas that could be explored. The story does dip into the past on occasion as Brenda reminisces on her birth and some of her more interesting encounters, but in the main, the narrative is very much set in the present. Even without her unique history Brenda reminds me of many women I’ve seen and met; mature women who have a no nonsense approach to life. They’ve seen it all and nothing shocks them anymore. She is tough and outspoken and takes no prisoners, making her the perfect person to tackle the supernatural and the unpleasant happenings in Whitby. She is Buffy as a tough old biddy, if you like.
She treats people as individuals and judges them by their actions not what others tell her, making her someone we should all aspire to be. There are subtle messages about minorities and treating everyone as equal, but I never felt the author’s voice intrude as Brenda is a unique and used to being an outsider. Perhaps it Brenda’s attitude that makes the incredible easier to swallow and the fact that the setting is very ordinary and where the highlight of the main character’s day could be a pie and peas dinner.
Every other character in the book, from Brenda’s apparently plain and nosey neighbour and friend Effie, to the waitress at the local hotel, feel incredibly real. Throughout the course of the story all sorts of secrets are revealed about them and gradually all of the stories and characters criss-cross until you feel as if you know the town and all of the people. Some of these secrets are spectacular and others more mundane, but the message was clear to me. All of us have secrets but also our first impressions of people can often be hasty and it can take months or even years before you really know someone.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that despite some of the hairier and darker moments in the story it is extremely funny. The mundane meets the magical and sometimes the latter is promptly told to sit down, shut up and wait its turn. There is also a very funny pastiche of a well known TV show where they visit supposedly haunted houses and a medium attempts to speak to the dead. This is the sort of show where they film everything in the dark on night vision so it appears green and white and zoom right up peoples noses. Where they play spooky music and get themselves worked up by nothing more than their active imagination, as week after week they apparently encounter spirits. But like so many things in this book, nothing is what it appears to be on the surface.
I am very happy to say Never the Bride is the first book in a series and without giving anything away, it very effectively establishes the landscape for the future, and it leaves a few plot threads dangling on the larger story to be picked up later. This is a wonderful, entertaining and enjoyable book and I absolutely will be picking up the next ones, and I think Paul Magrs has created something unique and rather special.