The Illusionist is the third book I’ve read recently on the theme of illusions. The Magician’s Assistant by Anne Patchett was the first followed by Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. Of these three I found The Illusionist the most satisfying. Jennifer Johnston is a new writer to me, but from the biographical details in the book I see that she has won many awards – the Whitbread Prize in 1979, the Evening Standard Best first Novel Award in 1972 and was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1977. I’m sorry I haven’t come across her books before, but I’ll be looking out for them from now on.
Once I started this I stopped reading the other books I have on the go and read this through in about two sittings. I wanted to find out what happened and why. Set in Ireland and England, it starts with Stella, looking back on her life after the death of her estranged husband, Martyn. Thirty years earlier they had met on a train when he had taken the book she was reading out of her hands and asked if she would like to play cards. Now if a stranger had done that to me I wouldn’t have been too pleased but Stella is charmed by him, and after a very short time they are married, against her parents’ advice. Martyn has a full time job but practices magic tricks, although he corrects her description of him as a conjuror – he is an Illusionist. However, it’s not long before she begins to have misgivings, particularly when he won’t tell her anything about his background or his job or what is in the locked the room where he is devising an extraordinary new trick, with the help of two mysterious men.
The situation gets worse as Stella is manipulated and controlled by Martyn, so much that she gives up her own job and they move with their daughter, Robin to a large house in the countryside. Eventually, as things become so bad and Robin is alienated from her mother, Stella has to take action.
There are various themes running through the book; the nature of love and trust, how much you can trust or know another person, what is real or illusory, and above all about preserving one’s integrity in relationships between husband/wife and mother /daughter. It’s so easy to read this book as the words just flow across the pages, bringing to my mind vivid pictures of the countryside:
Out beyond Clifden the world seems to end: hills, islands, clouds drift together in the huge ocean of the sky. Sometimes the sun overwhelms both the sea and the sky with its glitter, sometimes pillars of rain move across the emptiness, then the colour, the texture of the land and sea change as the rain falls, from blue to grey, sometimes to black. Other times a shawl of mist hides mountains, sea and sky.
The characters also came alive in my mind and I began to dislike Martyn more and more as the book progressed and I found myself wanting to support and encourage Stella in her struggle to survive. There is so much in this book that I liked and here is one example indicating the themes explored within the story:
Some words lurk in the darkness of your mind, like young men lurk in the shadows, waiting to damage, maim, or merely frighten unsuspecting walkers once the light has gone.
Words can be like missiles or rose or travellers to another world. You can play delightful games with them, that will make you and others smile, feel light-hearted, or you can kill; you can hide the truth or manifest it.