Martin Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York is not a new novel. First published in the UK in 1992, it went out of print for some time before eventually being released in the US in 2006 and making it back onto the British market shortly afterwards. I have never read any of Millar’s work before, but with my edition (Piatkus 2011) coming with a glowing foreword by none other than Neil Gaiman (“read it now, and then make your friends buy their own copies. You’ll thank me one day”) it very quickly moved to the top of my “to read” pile. I followed Gaiman’s advice to read it now, but whether I will be encouraging any of my friends to buy copies is something that I am still making my mind up about.
The novel takes a whole new perspective on the fairy tale of New York. It recounts the story of two exiled Scottish thistle fairies, Morag MacPherson and Heather MacKintosh, and what happens when they find themselves exiled from their homeland for a series of misdemeanours. Drunk and more than a little lost, they accidently turn up in New York, falling in through the window of failed violinist Dinnie and vomiting on his carpet. When they discover that Dinnie is also a MacKintosh, Heather feels honour-bound to help him improve his frankly pathetic life; an honour that has more than a little to do with the fact that his fiddle happens to be an important MacKintosh clan artefact that would allow her to return home if she delivers it back to Scotland. Morag, meanwhile, makes friends with Dinnie’s neighbour Kerry, a hippy with a serious illness who he loves from afar but has never managed to talk to. Between the two of them, the eighteen inch trouble-makers work on bringing the two unlikely lovers together, while inadvertently starting street brawls with Italian and Chinese fairies, bringing the wrath of the fairy king of Cornwall upon the city, and getting drunk again (and again).
The result of this is an absurdist fantasy novel that is quite unlike anything else I have ever read. The plot is highly original, well-structured and clearly shows that Millar has a great deal of knowledge of British, particularly Scottish, fairy folklore. In his world, fairies are not the pretty little goody-goodies that they are so often portrayed as in literature and film; rather they are fixated on drink, sex and magic mushrooms, and are not above a bit of fighting and stealing where helping the humans they like is concerned. This make a refreshing and amusing change from the norm.
However, as much as I liked the plot and the ideas that were bursting out of this book, I found it hard to get to grips with the writing. Millar is clearly a writer that doesn’t believe in providing a lot of incidental background to help readers build up scenes, locations and people in their head. He instead jumps straight into the action at each point, writing in short intense bursts of punchy prose with a lot of very short chapters making up the book’s structure. While this keeps a complex and potentially long plot rattling along at a very fast pace, I found it also something of a barrier to losing myself in the story and really getting to know the characters in the book. I suspect that this is down to simple personal preference and the sort of books I usually read rather than there being anything inherently wrong with the writing, but I still felt that I hadn’t got the most out of a great storyline when I got to the end of it. It felt a bit…insubstantial somehow.
I think my conclusion would be that I quite liked it and it is a nice easy read for a lazy weekend. I suspect a lot of people out there will really enjoy this odd mix of Scottish fairies and New York punk (feypunk?), probably a lot more than I did. I don’t think I will be encouraging my friends to buy copies of this anytime soon, but they are certainly welcome to borrow it and see what they think.
Sort of recommended.
The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar
Published by Piatkus, 2011
With thanks to the nice people at Little, Brown who sent me this review copy.
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