Sword and sorcery

The Magician's Wife by Brian Moore, Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99
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Brian Moore achieves wonders with The Magician's Wife. It's a fairly short novel which contains countless riches, a straightforward tale which sets off unexpected reverberations, and a narrative tour de force whose subtlety of purpose adds lashings of illumination.

Set in 1856 (the year is important) in Paris and Algiers, the book considers the magician's art - prestidigitation - as a political expedient, taking its cue from an actual ploy of the Emperor Napoleon III's Arab Bureau. France at the time was engaged in subjugating Algeria. Europe's most revered magician - Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, whose name was later adopted in homage by Harry Houdini - was enlisted to perform before inurbane marabouts whose noses were to be put out of joint by the supposedly stronger supernatural powers of their European adversaries.

For Brian Moore, this makes a starting-place for a wholly convincing, beautifully judged work of the imagination. Robert-Houdin: the name jumped out at him from the correspondence between Flaubert and George Sand, and this fact too is not without significance for the novel. 1856 was the year in which installments of Madame Bovary began to appear in the Revue de Paris; and Emmeline Lambert - the magician's wife of the title - is very much a Bovary figure: childless, unebulliently married, provincial. She is, however, more scrupulous and level- headed than Emma and, although adultery is on the cards at more than one moment, the book is so arranged that the emphasis falls elsewhere.

Emmeline is, to be sure, a doctor's daughter, not a doctor's wife. Moore's The Doctor's Wife of 1974 was the book in which adultery is the mainspring and focus of the plot, and this author never repeats himself. New departures are his forte.

Moore never repeats himself, but his novels aren't without certain identification marks: a temperate virtuosity, a tautness of style, the moment of crisis awaiting each protagonist. Among the technical problems he sets himself, and solves without fuss in book after book, is the rehabilitation of slightly suspect genres such as the thriller or the historical narrative. He repudiates their trammels while harnessing their power to enthrall. His excursions into the past - which include Black Robe from 1985, about Jesuit missionaries and savage tribes in 17th-century Canada, and the current novel - are marked by that clairvoyance or intuition specified by Flaubert as essential to any pungent form of historical re-creation.

One of the most overpowering aspects of The Magician's Wife is its enticing Algerian atmosphere: dark narrow lanes and whitewashed Moorish houses, rosewater and orange trees and faded pink silken robes. Somehow, for the Frenchwoman, her mission in Algiers - as an adjunct of her husband, the magician - has to be weighed in the balance against the delicacy and integrity of the civilisation she is confronted with, however scantily. "There is something about this place," she says, "something I would not like to change".

This is a novel about varieties of expertise, different kinds of trickery and treachery, and the scope for betrayal (another recurrent Moore motif). It deals with clashing cultures and the demarcation line between wizardry and science, with the consequences of callousness and the frightening intensity - in Moore's phrase - of firm religious belief. All these issues are tackled obliquely.

The Magician's Wife gives us much to picture and ponder. It is also abundant in suspense, of the ordinary page-turning kind - as, for example, in the moment when Henri Lambert, the magician, gets himself caught in a fix. Either he must put his life in jeopardy, or have his "magic" shown up as spurious. Will his resources prove equal to the emergency? In the hands of such an unimpeachable storyteller, the dilemma is riveting. And staying close to the consciousness of the central character - the wife - gives a particular colouring to the story. Emmeline Lambert takes her place among those other Moore heroines, Marie Davenport, Sheila Redden, Mary Dunne... the line stretches all the way to Judith Hearne, the charmless Belfast spinster whose predicament, in 1955, marked the start of an exceptionally sure-footed literary career. A superb novel, the The Magician's Wife demonstrates yet again the author's refusal to be pigeon-holed, his flair for springing surprises on the reader.

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