Magic tricks

Harriet Paterson reads a jagged tale of marital deceit : The Illusionis t by Jennifer Johnston Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 14.99

If you still didn't know that you shouldn't talk to strange men on trains, Jennifer Johnston's new novel is the cautionary tale you need to read. Seduced by a few silk-hanky tricks between Liverpool and Euston, the narrator, Stella, is soon married to the magician sitting opposite her.

The first two things she learns about him are that his name is spelt "Martyn" and that he's not a magician, he's an illusionist. Despite these two highly suspect traits she is hooked, imagining, one supposes, that she has found someone "different". This turns out to be the greatest and most resilient of Martyn's illusions. She believes him to be generous, mysterious, alternative, when he is possessive, duplicitous and unreasonable - a man whose only charm is to be able to produce a delicious chocolate from behind one's ear.

As this is an insufficient basis for a lasting marriage, Stella is relating their story from a safe distance into the future, having left him and gone home to Dublin. In a somewhat stagey death, the illusionist has subsequently been killed, together with his van-load of white doves, by a terrorist bomb. Johnston wheels on the IRA in a formulaic way that is surprising from an Irish writer, merely to provide Martyn with a suitably surreal ending. There is a token tirade from the daughter about "You Irish" and "innocent people screaming in pain" but it carries no reverberations into any other part of the book. The purely symbolic character of Martyn's death robs it of any pathos - now you see him, now you don't.

The narrative alternates between flashbacks to the marriage and Stella's encounter with their grown-up daughter following Martyn's funeral, fraught with recriminations. The past is not informed by the present; her recollections constitute a diary untouched by hindsight. "He gave me everything I ever needed" Stella continues to say until years into the relationship, when there is little evidence that he is giving her anything at all. In conversation with her daughter, however, the scales have fallen away to reveal standard old-love-affair cynicism: he only cared about himself, and so on.

This to-and-fro structure between past and present is exaggerated by the fragmentary prose style. Words are placed sparingly on the page, paragraphs often containing little more than one or two sentences, or just a couple of words. Where the subject is willing, this can create the rhythms of blank verse: "I dream. / I dream of her entrance." But other phrases lack the substance to fill so much space and the effect is that of the newsreader who stresses every word to provide borrowed significance: "I may as well have a bath."

The staccato result, made up of a myriad of little pauses, mirrors the pattern of random thoughts passing through Stella's head; dreams give way to snapshot childhood memories and then to the lyrics of a song, a series of non-sequiturs which makes the narrative into a jagged sequence of stepping stones.

The search for a lyrical interlude during these frequent reveries produces some writing harmful to the credibility of the whole: "Words can be like missiles or roses or travellers to another world". Such a phrase is more showy than meaningful, as are the sub-Lawrentian rites in which Stella indulges herself: "I would like to be able to dance a dance of love and anger and sorrow".

Dialogue is a stronger element, revealing more and showing firmer authorial grip. Most conversations in the book consist of studies in mutual incomprehension; Martyn spends most of his time in a dream world, telling Stella nothing, then accusing her of not understanding him. Her attempts to understand him are viciously rebuffed, betraying a domineering and inflexible bedrock to his character. Stella's exchanges with her daughter are little better. Ultimately, The Illusionist is less a love story than a sad reflection on how rarely anyone manages genuinely to get a message through to anyone else.

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