Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: The Magician's Lie

The Magician's Lie The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel is really two competing stories.

On the surface it’s the competition between the story of “Arden,” the leading female stage illusionist of the early 20th century, and Virgil Holt, a small town Iowa deputy who’s been badly wounded and confronts his likely dismissal from the force and end of his marriage. She tells him her story over the course of an evening in a small jail, and she pulls bits and pieces of his from him as he tries to interrogate her.

But, for me at least, the more compelling narrative competition is within Arden’s story. On the one hand, she recounts her adventures in an exotic space at the dawn of the technological age. That’s reminiscent of Water for Elephants, though it runs into some of the same difficulties as that generally good novel: when the space of the story is so magical in itself, it’s a challenge to make an individual’s story carry enough weight to propel the story forward.

On the other hand, Arden tells her story for a mysterious purpose, and that element has the potential to lift the novel into another level. The novel’s opening epigrams (all about mistrusting people who tell their own stories) and the fact of her being an illusionist trained in misdirection – coupled with her desperate need to trick Virgil into letting her go – sets up the perpetual possibility that her whole account is a lie, that it’s an elaborate trick to ensure her escape.

That possibility of duplicity hangs over her narrative – it is “The Magician’s Lie” – and it adds to the overall narrative power when it comes to the fore. For too long stretches, though, the prospect of an unreliable narrator vanishes. We’re reminded of it any time Virgil interrupts her, but the bulk of this reads like Arden’s adventure rather than the more postmodern novel it occasionally becomes.

Toward the end, the novel gets bogged down further as elements of S & M find their way in in surprising (and insufficiently ironic) ways, and it resolves its fundamental tension with an unsatisfying surprise.

I enjoyed most of this very much, but I’m inclined to dock it an additional star for ending as suddenly (and against the principles that have driven it) as it does. Much of this is compelling, but it feels as if it could have milked the uncertainty of the narrator more effectively, and the ending brings that flaw more dramatically to the foreground.

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