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.