Fourth Estate have a shrewd eye for transatlantic fiction. They snapped up Carol Shields when the big houses missed the opportunity and now they have scored again with this young American writer. The Magician's Assistant is delightful, original, moving and entirely persuasive in its shifts from sybaritic Los Angeles to the clenched world of a fraught family in Alliance, Nebraska in the dead of winter.

In this sense, the novel is sternly within the American literary tradition, with the country itself as the significant backdrop directing lives and events. But Ann Patchett's touch is feather-light, as deft as the magician's repertoire which enlivens the narrative, so that the crucial determining factors of place and opportunity are simply there as contrasting climates behind the action.

Parsifal is the magician; but he died of Aids before the book began, along with his lover Phan. The story now is that of Sabine, who loved him, who was his assistant, eventually his wife and who, as her mother observes, "had a long and very unusual relationship with a good man, but that's over now". Except that it isn't, for Sabine, mourning the man who was not her lover but her love, lonely in the mansion that belonged to gentle Vietnamese Phan, her only company the rabbit that was an essential prop in Parsifal's act.

Past and present are melded with great dexterity, the deaths of Parsifal and Phan intercut with events from much further back. Sabine's meeting with Parsifal, her induction into the world of magic, the climax of their joint appearance on the Johnny Carson Show. Parsifal is both charismatic and mysterious - this last quality lying at the very heart of the book. The reader comes to realise, with Sabine, that Parsifal has reinvented himself. He is that classic American figure, the small-town boy who has gone far from home.

It is Sabine's discovery of and immersion in this lost home that forms the absorbing final section of the novel, along with the shocking revelation of what happened in Nebraska all those years ago. His family swarms onto centre stage - mother, sisters, adolescent nephews, all given a vivid presence that allows them to be both ordinary and forcefully individual. And if the end lurches dangerously in the direction of sentiment - well, I was sufficiently beguiled to turn a blind eye. This is a lovely book by a writer to watch.

Penelope Lively