The debut novel by young author Sophie Powell is a slight book in every sense of the word. At fewer than two hundred pages (and many of those sparsely printed), this is more of a novella than a fully-fledged novel. If you have a couple of hours to wile away, you could do worse than to spend them curled up reading The Mushroom Man. Just don’t expect it to engage or move you deeply. This is what I would call a typical Gen-X novel: stylish, but without much substance.
The story centers on two sisters, Charlotte and Beth. Charlotte Newman, an upwardly mobile professional, lives in London with her husband, her six year-old daughter, Lily, and Pavlova, their Estonian au pair. Charlotte is an overprotective mother who never allows her child to watch cartoons and only buys educational toys. Charlotte has had little to do with her sister since Beth married a lowly furniture repairman and moved to Wales. Beth is a now a widow. The earth-mother type and the absolute antithesis of Charlotte, Beth lives with her teenage son and three eleven year-old daughters (triplets) in a farmhouse deep in the Welsh countryside. She still misses her husband and is desperate to reconnect with her sister. Her persistence finally pays off when she manages to persuade Charlotte and Lily to come to Wales for a visit.
Charlotte’s husband remains in London. He has felt neglected by his wife ever since Lily's birth and is having an affair with Pavlova, the family’s Estonian nanny.
In the lax atmosphere of her aunt’s house, far from the strict routine of her life in London, Lily’s six year-old imagination is given free reign. The triplets tell Lily a bedtime story about a hermit, the mushroom man, who lives in the forest making umbrellas for fairies. Lily runs off twice into the forest looking for the mushroom man and returns claiming to have had tea with him. The third time she disappears she doesn’t come back, and the adults are convinced that a child predator is on the loose. The triplets, however, begin to believe in the fairy story they made up and head off to look for their cousin, convinced that she has found the mushroom man.
The Mushroom Man is an adult novel written in the style of a children’s fable. The only problem in that the author’s style of writing keeps the reader at a distance. Even the immediacy that comes from telling the entire story in the present tense fails to dispel the feeling that these disturbing events are not happening to real people. The characters are no more than types, and so it is impossible to care about them.
Nonetheless, Powell builds and ably sustains the tension surrounding Lily’s disappearance. Two bumbling police officers (referred to only as policeman number one and policeman number two) provide a stark contrast to the anguished Charlotte and the guilt-ridden Beth. The author is playing on our uncertainty as to how the story will end. Is this a comedy in the Shakespearean sense, with the inevitable happy ending? Or will it turn out to be a gruesome fairytale more in the style of the Brothers Grimm?
I was only disappointed in The Mushroom Man because I expected more. I found little evidence of the magic of Celtic myth promised by the publicity blurb, which was what attracted me to the novel in the first place. The family drama was also less than satisfying to me because the characters lacked depth. However, this is otherwise a well-written book, one which will certainly appeal to those readers looking for something in the stylized, Gen-X vein.
One more thing: Powell apparently has a deep disdain for quotation marks. I am not sure what she hoped to achieve by omitting this particular item of punctuation, but personally I find such affectations of style distracting.