Tuesday 23 January 2018

Review: Fiction: Christmas Magic by Cathy Kelly

Harper Collins, €14.99

If you want to make reader expectations go through the roof, nothing will do the job more effectively than a pink, sparkly book cover and a seductive title like Christmas Magic. Which may explain why this one is near the top of the bestsellers this week.

The very least readers will expect is a magic carpet ride through the emotional minefield that is the festive season. And Cathy Kelly certainly delivers.

If the bestselling author was feeling the pressure, it certainly doesn't show in this collection of 19 short stories, six of which are new. It's hard to believe that she was once 'short-story phobic', as she admits in the afterword, because she is gifted at the genre.

Or perhaps it's just the magic she spins through each story that makes this book so appealing. This is not a 'click your ruby shoes' type of magic, but something much more subtle: it is the inner strength that people seem to conjure up when they are pushed outside their comfort zones.

Corny? It might appear so at first in the book's title story Christmas Magic when the reader is drawn into a soft-focus world where two elderly unmarried sisters, Genevieve and Dolores, spend their humdrum days in the "enchantingly pretty' Primrose Cottage.

But reality has a reassuring habit of crushing the fairytale idyll. It comes knocking at Genevieve's door in the form of a book delivery that makes her start to question her life and resent the iron grasp her overbearing mother still has on her, even though she has been dead for years.

The story -- and indeed the book -- might promise frothy escape on the outside but it grapples with all the tough contemporary issues on the inside; expect to read about marital break-up, infertility, depression and financial ruin, but handled with genuine insight and sensitivity.

For instance, the last and perhaps best story in the book, A Family Christmas is a deeply moving study of depression. Cathy Kelly is that rare kind of writer who understands and loves people despite their many foibles. You feel completely safe in her company. So safe that, like Selena, in Madame Lucia, who has stolen money to pay off her credit card, you might admit your mistakes. Or, at the very least, your hang-ups.

Who would blame Lily (in Bride and Doom) for being defiantly single after being dumped at the altar? Her friend Shauna has a point when she asks, "If Nasa had put one man in space, why couldn't they put them all there?"

Suzanne is off men too, and with good reason, but she has her mind changed in the wonderfully titled Thelma, Louise and the Lurve Gods when she heads off on an adventure across America with her pal Becky and the aforementioned 'lurve gods'.

But love often has a sting in its tail and there is nothing like Christmas to expose the cracks. In The Angel Gabrielle underappreciated wife Claire is laughed at by her husband and children when she decides to do a computer course.

"Will you be printing off the shopping list on Excel Notes, Mum?" one of them guffaws. Meanwhile, Shelley is having an affair with a married man who is using her, but when Christmas comes the two women get their own back in a very satisfying twist.

At one point, Peggy the hairdresser, aka the Angel Gabrielle of the title, says that there is no better way to spend Christmas than by adding a little sparkle to people's lives. And with this collection, author Cathy Kelly has done just that.

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