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
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform