BOOKS: Fiction: And for my last trick

THE MAGICIAN'S ASSISTANT by Anne Patchett Fourth Estate pounds 15.99
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A MAGICIAN'S art lies in misdirecting your attention so that, spellbound and bedazzled, you are left wondering how the trick was performed. Just as Sabine, the newly-married, now widowed wife and assistant of the magician Parsifal, is amazed and confused when the contents of his will are revealed.

Since they first met 22 years before, she had believed what he told her: that he was brought up in Westport and orphaned by a horrific car crash. He was the only man Sabine ever loved, despite the fact that Parsifal was gay. She remained unmarried, respected and valued by both Parsifal and his lover Phan, a Vietnamese computer wizard. They planned together that after Phan died of Aids, Parsifal should marry Sabine to ease his own inevitable decline and death, and ensure that bureaucracy did not separate these lifelong friends. But the best-laid plans go astray and death comes via a sudden brain haemorrhage before he or Sabine are ready for it.

It is then she discovers that the Parsifal she knows is an illusion. The Los Angeles magician is really Guy Fetters from Alliance, Nebraska, with a mother and two sisters very much alive. Patchett repeatedly reminds us that a magician perfects a trick by constant practice. Why did Parsifal lie to Sabine about his past? And, more disturbing, why, after so many years, had he revealed his deception through his will?

Overwhelmed by grief, terrified of not understanding Parsifal's final trick, Sabine dreams repeatedly about Phan, who reassures her that although nothing makes sense, all will be well: "When you can get some distance, you will start to see patterns. Everything falls into place." So she resolves that although their future has been stolen from her, the chance to meet his family will at least give her the consolation of finding out more about his first 18 years.

Accepting his estranged mother's invitation to stay, Sabine leaves California for the "howling snowstorm of solid whiteness" in Nebraska, giving them and his two sisters an opportunity to get to know each other and take comfort from the illusion that they have regained Parsifal/ Guy.

Little by little, truths from the past emerge and they learn to accept each other's strategies for dealing with abusive relationships. As Dot, Guy's mother says: "You can't really leave somebody in a town like this. There are only 10,000 people here. No matter where you go, you keep seeing them. You can't ever start over again."

Anne Patchett considers questions of belonging and security as Sabine, Parsifal, Phan and the Fetters are revealed as outsiders in their own landscapes, each seeking a place to call their own. She uses the simple device of Parsifal's death to catalyse change in all their lives, not just through the money he leaves them, but also through their attempts to rationalise his behaviour and their own. And in her light, lucid style it works, without seeming forced or tricksy.

Ann Patchett has created a fresh tale by playing gracefully with ideas of illusion and illusions - those which are created for us and those we create for ourselves.