“Twitchy with ramifications” – The Trouble with Sunbathers by Magnus Mills

Imagine our surprise when we chanced across the news that Magnus Mills had joined Twitter to also subsequently learn that he’d self-published not one but two books without us even knowing about it! Long-time readers of Bookmunch will know that we have followed Mills since his first Booker-nominated book, The Restraint of Beasts, all the way back in 1998. You only have to take an idle wander through the last decade of Bookmunch to see us frothing over such titles as A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, The Field of the Cloth of Gold and The Forensic Records Society, amongst others.

The Trouble with Sunbathers is the newest of the two books that we have missed (and we suspect that Mills joined Twitter to publicise its release), the other – Tales of the Muffled Oar, a novel in case you were thinking it was a similar book to Screwtop Thompson – having been published in 2020 (which has us thinking, is Mills dispensing with regular publishing just because he’s tired of the one-book-every-18-months-unless-you’re-Stephen-King cycle of publishing?). …Sunbathers is a Mills book in the vein of Three to See the King or the aforementioned Cruel Bird / Field, in that it’s set in a world that is both familiar but ever so slightly askance to this one.

Like a great many of Mills’ books, …Sunbathers is light, seemingly mundane but twitchy with ramifications. We are in Great Britain. This much we know. But it’s a Great Britain that has been purchased by the President (and we ask ourselves – does he mean that President, the one that a great many literary books refer to without naming?) who has turned it into a sort of freeze-framed nature reserve. What do we mean by freeze-framed nature reserve? Well, as part of the terms of purchase, the country has to be left just as it was when the President bought it. Which isn’t to say that it is to be maintained, but rather left, to quietly wither on the vine.

But really this is background: our story focuses in the main on two chaps who have to manage a gate, one of four such gates dotted about the British Isles through which cars occasionally pass. We say ‘occasionally pass’ because the gentlemen in question are not exactly rushed off their feet. They learn that other gates are occasionally closed and by doing so drivers are more tempted to offer tips and so they, sporadically, open and close their gate too. Periodically they are visited by their boss who seems a bit put upon. And they discuss the sunbathers – because, in the wake of the President’s purchase, the vast majority of people moved to the coasts believing (wrongly) that those bits weren’t now owned by the President.

There is a background rumble of unease (this is, after all, a Magnus Mills book) in the form of some Americans who seem to have ideas above their station and drive around in black sedans, seemingly up to nefarious ends. There are signs put on gates, battered hedges, statues torn down and complaints about British exceptionalism. By which, we take The Trouble with Sunbathers to be Magnus Mills saying something about Brexit and Trump and all of that – but what we couldn’t really tell you. As usual in a Mills’ book, it’s pretty much a man’s world, and woman has largely left these uninhabited areas behind – there is an abandoned girl’s school, a statue of a once great woman and rumours and legends of a young actress who disappeared riding an elephant whilst allegedly in Africa but if you’re coming here with a Bechdel test, you’re quite possibly going to come away disappointed.

We’d also add, given our continuing puzzlement over the climax of The Forensic Records Society, that we approached the end of the book with trepidation but were pleased with the way he resolved things. So there’s that too.

Any Cop?: If you were to put us on the spot and ask us where it stacked up in Mills’ oeuvre we’d say it was better than The Forensic Records Society but, given its brevity (it’s just over 90 pages long) maybe not quite on a par with the likes of Three to See the King (which remains one of our faves).

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