Smoke and Mirrors?

The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston

Firstly, this is the choice of the ‘Not the TV Book Club’ for March 21st where the discussions will be hosted by Kim at Reading Matters. If you haven’t decided whether or not to read this book yet to join in the NTTVBC, let me try to convince you to give it a go and join in the discussion on March 21st. I found it to be a brilliant read, and not long too so you have time if you’re quick…

Jennifer Johnston is Dublin-born, and won the Whitbread prize for her novel The Old Jest in 1979; The Illusionist was published in 1995.  It tells the story of Stella and Martyn who meet on a train, fall in love, get married, have a child, fall out of love, then Martyn dies.

The story starts after Martyn’s funeral. Robin, their daughter, who had worshipped her father is staying with her mother. She’s never forgiven her mother for walking out on them, and Stella wishes she could convince her of why she had to do it.

“I always used to wonder where he came from. Who begat your father.”
“Curiosity killed the cat.”
“I’ve often wondered if he told you things that he never told me. Or took you somewhere and said … I used to play in this street … I used to walk on this stony beach. Did he ever speak his geography to you? Or his history? Who slapped him when he was a child? Who sang songs to him? What were the songs they sang?”
“It’s a bit late to be asking these questions now. Why didn’t you ask him when he was alive?”
“I did. Over and over again. He said it didn’t matter.”

The novel then alternates between the past and present and we hear Stella’s story of their relationship; how she was swept off her feet by Martyn the illusionist, never a simple magician or conjuror. He’s a bit secretive – she knows so little about him, but being in love that doesn’t matter. However, over the years, she’s still no wiser about what he does in his locked room where he and his friends perfect their illusions; she doesn’t know what he does at work either, or if he has any family for that matter. Martyn hates questions, he sees it as interfering but doesn’t believe that could also apply to him; he is increasingly controlling of Stella and her aspirations to become a writer.

I was hooked from the start. The growing claustrophobia of the relationship and gradual reveal of this rickety marriage, Martyn’s growing control freakery and Stella’s realisation of what she has got herself into are skillfully handled. Martyn’s grand spectacles involve doves, and those caged and passive birds echo Stella’s plight, particularly as she’s terrified of them indoors – she comes to wish she and they were free. There are some beautifully reflective passages amongst all the dialogue. I will be searching out more of this skilled writer’s novels. (9/10)

P.S. at 1530. If you’re planning to join in, can I urge you to save your comments for the NTTVBC – see the top para. – I look forward to joining in the discussions with you.


13 thoughts on “Smoke and Mirrors?

  1. Oh this sounds really interesting…not something I would usually pick up but now I’m branching out, I would consider reading this from your review!

    • It’s not a book I’d have normally chosen too, but Kim picked it at Reading Matters for the NTTVBC and I liked the sound of it. I’m glad I read it.

  2. I have to say I have been looking forward to all of the NTTVBG reads but am looking forward to this one even more now… will start it within the next week or so.

    • I know I’m a bit premature with my write-up given the NTTVBC in a fortnight’s time, but I thought I might encourage a few more to join in that way. Anyway I’m ready!!!

  3. This sounds great. I wasn’t planning on reading it, because it sounded rather depressing (it still does!), but your review’s convinced me. 🙂

    • It wasn’t a joyful read but I didn’t find it depressing, but the suspense of finding out about Martyn made it compulsive for me. Why not try it and join in the NTTVBC discussion in a fortnight’s time…

  4. This sounds lovely and wonderful and now I really want to read it! I saw this author mentioned yesterday on Eva’s post asking for recommendations for Irish authors, and I’m glad to get more followup about her. Must find this book!

  5. It sounds really interesting. I am intending joining in with this one, but still waiting on a copy coming in from the library, so will be there as long as it comes in in time!

    • Just coincidence. The film is based on a short story by Steven Milhauser I believe. Did you see the film – I liked it very much.

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