Monday, July 23, 2012

the last book I read

The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston.

Stella meets Martyn on a train, some time in the early 1960s. She is an impressionable young woman and he is a professional illusionist, forever hoicking coins out of people's ears and such like. Soon they strike up a relationship and get married, despite not really knowing each other. Or, to be more accurate, without Stella knowing Martyn - she is open enough with her past and introduces him to her parents, but finds out precious little about him.

They have a daughter, Robin, and move to a large house in the country, an arrangement largely instigated by Martyn which Stella goes along with despite it meaning her giving up her job at a London publishing house. She settles into childcare and cooking Martyn's dinner while he cooks up increasingly elaborate tricks involving a whole flock of doves which he keeps in a large barn next to the house. There are various mysterious comings and goings from the barn, as well, principally the mysterious Peter Magill and Dr. Rhodes, neither of whom seem to register or acknowledge Stella's existence.

Stella's former boss Bill comes to visit her out at the house, and gives her a gift of a typewriter and a couple of reams of paper, and persuades her that she should start writing. Seeing it as a chance to escape from her increasingly fraught and remote relationship with Martyn, Stella throws herself into it, and finds that she has a talent for it, much to Martyn's displeasure, since he doesn't want a wife with her own career, but just someone to ply him with shepherd's pie once he's finished dove-wrangling in the barn.

Eventually the tension between Martyn's increasingly mysterious behaviour, obsessive devotion to his craft and long unexplained absences and Stella's burgeoning literary career come to a head, there is a climactic confrontation, and Stella leaves, originally intending to take Robin with her, but having to leave alone when it becomes clear that Robin wants to stay with Martyn.

The novel starts and ends 20-odd years later, with Martyn having been killed in an IRA bomb explosion in London and Robin stopping in to stay with Stella in Dublin on the way to fulfil her duties as executor of his will. A will that, just to confirm all Stella's old suspicions about Martyn's "other" lives, contains a few surprises.

So basically boy meets girl, boy seems all sexy and mysterious with the hand-waving and the cape-twirling and the unexpected production of rabbits out of hats and the like but actually turns out to be your standard run-of-the-mill nasty controlling manipulative selfish bastard, girl leaves boy, boy gets blown up, secrets are revealed, initial diagnosis of nasty selfish bastardry is confirmed. But most artistic works can be reduced in that way if you try hard enough. You know, Hamlet: bloke's Dad gets killed so he mopes a bit. The trick is in making you care about the protagonists, a trick Johnston pulls off pretty well, despite a few niggling loose ends, like: Martyn's tricks, particularly the ones with the doves, seem phenomenally elaborate for a bloke who's doing gigs in Chiswick. Some of the flying around the stage malarkey wouldn't have been out of place in a David Copperfield show. So given that he isn't doing that, where is he getting his money from? I suppose the point is that we're mostly seeing things from Stella's viewpoint and she probably never knew either.

Anyway, for all the occasional niggles this is very good - if I hadn't read the cover before diving in I wouldn't have been totally surprised to have emerged to discover it was written by Penelope Lively, which I should make clear is a compliment. Jennifer Johnston has written a few books (including Shadows On Our Skin, nominated for the 1977 Booker Prize) which touch on Ireland and the Troubles directly, but this one, despite starting with a death in an IRA bombing, doesn't really touch on that at all, in the same way that Amongst Women didn't quite turn out to be about what you thought it was going to be about.

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