Books: And for my next trick - a novel

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The Houdini Girl

Martyn Bedford Viking pounds 15.99

Martyn Bedford has come up with a tidy idea. From a novelist's point of view, the plot of offers a very neat and beguiling set of mirrors with which to frame and reflect the various strands of his story.

Red, a professional magician, seduces Rosa in a pub by playing a trick on her. A year later she mysteriously dies under the wheels of a train and Red discovers that the trick has been on him. Rosa's led a double life, deceiving him as successfully as he deceives his audiences. He finds she's a woman with a past - sexual abuse, drug addiction and prostitution. He also discovers that she worked for an organisation that spirits Amsterdam prostitutes into safe-houses in Britain.

The implication is clear. Red might earn his living making his "lovely" assistant Kim disappear and reappear, but he can't bring Rosa back or use his magic for anything as ethical as freeing women from the shackles of vice. The woman in the peep-show booth or the prostitute and her pimp begin to throw a decidedly red light over Kim's relationship with Red. She's not only cut in half and decapitated to suit the needs of the act but also to serve as an objectified sexual spectacle for audience and magician.

Bedford uses these corresponding plot lines well, but it's the other obvious parallel in all this, that of illusionist and novelist, that tests the integrity of his own performance as writer. The question is: does his fiction fool the reader?

As is a novel that tries to deal with the abuse of women by men, then an important part of Bedford's illusion is creating female characters the reader believes in. I'm not sure he achieves this. Kim and Rosa, the two women in Red's life, are described rather unencouragingly as, "alike ... in one essential respect: a predisposition for deceit". But their similarities don't end there. Superficially, Bedford achieves two markedly different characters: Rosa the no- nonsense tomboy and Kim the purring temptress. However, beneath their differences lies a shared identity based on their sexual relationship with Red, and Bedford struggles to prevent this from bubbling to the surface. The word "fuck", which is a favourite of Bedford's, erupts into his writing more often than is reasonable. As an exclamation or adjective you could get away with it as often as you like, but as a verb, in an otherwise mild-mannered vocabulary, it punctures rather than empowers the prose.

In one of many discussions on the theory of performing magic, Red writes, "Watch a substandard magician (actor, musician, whatever) at work and try to put your finger on what makes him bad. I'll tell you: it's the impression that his concentration is divided between technique and presentation." Technically, Bedford is a good writer and the structures of his novel are well organised, but you need characters you believe in to make an illusion appear true.