BOOK REVIEW / Transports of magic

Colin Greenland is hoodwinked by a novel of multiple illusions; The Prestige by Christopher Priest Simon & Schuster, pounds 15.99

In 1984, Christopher Priest's novel, The Glamour, reminded us that before Hollywood redefined it, "glamour" was a Scots word for a magic spell. A "prestige'' turns out to be a technical term of stage magicians, meaning the effect of a trick, the rabbit pulled out of the hat. Nevertheless, be warned: "The central rule of magic always holds good - what is seen is not what is actually being done."

The Prestige looks as if it is going to be about a mysterious sect, whose founder, while securely incarcerated in California, has managed to make an appearance at a country house in Derbyshire. No sooner is that clear than, hey presto, it is actually about someone else: Alfred Borden, who, late last century, used to demonstrate the same ability nightly at 25 guineas a time. Andrew Westley, a reluctant journalist sent to investigate the translocating priest, learns instead that he is Alfred Borden's great- grandson, and that a portion of the misery of his life is inherited from the old man, and likewise from Rupert Angier, Borden's rival and arch- enemy, whose great-granddaughter now owns the house.

The narrative is a compilation of autobiographical documents from the principals in both centuries; the theme is duplication: replicas, impostors, adulterers. It is about self-deception and being in two minds. Even the feuding pair, as each later privately acknowledges, "might have made better collaborators than adversaries." Borden is the one who started it. Righteously disrupting a bogus but benevolent seance staged by the temporarily impoverished Angier, he accidentally injured the pregnant Mrs Angier. Ever after, Angier has dogged his career, spoiling his tricks.

Priest's plot employs two entirely separate supernatural devices, which perhaps is a shame, because it tends to suggest a universe of caprice and permeability that is the opposite of the locked, fatalistic cosmos he really wants to describe. All the same, the point is well made that Borden, the carpenter's son, has a natural talent which Angier, the aristocrat, can only imitate by artifice. Borden's most celebrated illusion, the trick that takes him to the top of the thaumaturgical tree, is one he calls the New Transported Man. Shutting himself in one cabinet, he immediately steps out of another 20 feet away, while the first collapses, empty. For his own version, Angier must commission a vast piece of machinery utilising the spectacular new power of electricity, and built by Nikola Tesla, who makes a bizarre guest appearance as a mad scientist in his lab perched above Colorado Springs.

As he has already demonstrated in The Space Machine, his affectionate if cumbersome attempt to unite HG Wells's The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds in a single sequel, the 19th century suits Priest rather well. His repressed, often gloomy, style goes with the furniture (though it is hard to imagine a Victorian writing "two factors were pivotal" or calling something a "fire risk"). He contrives moments of the purest Gothic, as when Angier pursues his doppelganger through the Pavilion Theatre, Lowestoft, or when the closed door of Borden's dressing room is penetrated by a haggard spectre clutching a knife. With its echo of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the final scene is magnificent, utterly alarming and genuinely moving. Only afterwards do you realise it has been foretold, literally (twice, of course).

Priest's mesmeric power is formidable. He is compelling in the way Ruth Rendell is, say, or more exactly Barbara Vine. His characters are eminently dislikeable, yet perfectly recognisable and deeply intelligible. He makes you gallop through the book simply to find out what possesses them, and what they will prove capable of. Even so, he requires you to remain alert, and rewards re-reading. "I have omitted the significant information," confesses Borden in his memoir, and though he is the least stylistically flashy of authors, concealment and misdirection are Priest's methods too.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'