The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston

DATE FINISHED: May 2nd, 2011

RATED: **** (4.5)

SYNOPSIS:  Martyn lives a double life: he works as an illusionist, and at home he builds the appearance of domestic bliss. But what is his past? Where does he come from? Where is his family? Where does the money come from to support his life with Star? At first entranced by the enigma of his extravagance and arrogance, eventually Stella realises she is being crushed by his controlling ways and that their life, too, is an illusion. The novel begins with Martyn’s shocking death but continues with his wife and daughter struggling to integrate their opposing views of husband and father. There is one last illusion which it seems even Martyn cannot sustain beyond the grave.

THOUGHTS:  Johnston’s prose is simple and understated – a necessary device for this chilling short novel in which strained mother-daughter relations mask a growing sense of unease.  Daddy’s girl Robin has lived her life as besotted with Martyn’s illusions as her mother once was and is unable to understand Stella’s ‘coldness’ toward him.  Robin has little time for the mother who abandoned her for her own selfish reasons.   Stella, meanwhile, bites her tongue as her own mother once did, aware that nothing is as clear-cut as it might seem. Although perhaps she wishes she had fought a little harder to keep her daughter.

In this carefully measured story, secrets are embedded within secrets, mysteries are never quite resolved, and a piercing, unsettling portrayal of family life is drawn. I especially appreciate that Martyn’s past remains a mystery rather than being revealed to provide excuses (or not) for his behaviour. A quiet, uncomfortable and unexpectedly powerful tale.

FOLLOWING ON:  The image of magician/illusionist seem to court the portrayal of interesting power plays: ‘Millroy the Magician’ by Paul Theroux is a favourite of mine. It is also worth drawing comparison with the precarious family relations within ‘Our Precious Lulu’ by Anne Fine.

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