Friday, 22 August 2003

Ann Patchett: The Magician's Assistant (1998)

Edition: Fourth Estate, 2002
Review number: 1182

Sabine has worked most of her life as a magician's assistant, hopelessly in love with her partner Parsifal even after she realises that he is gay. Then Parsifal's lover dies of AIDS, and he marries Sabine because he wants her to inherit everything he and Phan had without a massive tax bill (Phan was a programmer who wrote a massively successful game); he dies soon afterwards not from HIV but from an unexpected aneurysm. It is only a few days later that Sabine discovers that almost everything that Parsifal told her over the past twenty years about his family background has been a lie; instead of being from New England, his parents and siblings dead, he came from Nebraska, and he has left a letter with his lawyer asking that his mother and sisters be provided for. And so they come to Los Angeles to meet Sabine, visit Parsifal's grave and see a city none of them have ever visited before, and Sabine begins to find out something of her husband's true past, and why he had cut himself off from it so profoundly.

This, then, is a novel of discovery, but not the self-discovery which is so common a literary theme (though as Sabine gets to know her ex-husband's real family, she learns some surprising things about herself too). It is mainly about being able to move beyond initial snap judgements to a better understanding of people.

Patchett uses the setting to help herself underline the differences between Parsifal's life as a stage magician, accepted as gay by his friends and successful in his profession, and the repressive atmosphere of his upbringing in what must be one of the most old fashioned small towns in the United States, to judge by this account. She does this with the simple device of setting the novel's action in winter, so that Los Angeles remains a place of warmth while Alliance lies under a blanket of freezing snow.

This particular edition of The Magician's Assistant has a massively misleading blurb, which has led my local library to classify it as fantasy. (Mind you, they have also put Michael Connelly's Void Moon in the science fiction section, for even less reason.) The novel is described as being about Sabine's discovery of powers of actual magic - which might make for an intriguing fantasy novel - and this simply is not what The Magician's Assistant is about. There is one aspect of the supernatural in the apparent reunions with Phan and Parsifal that Sabine experiences in her dreams, and there is a hint that she goes beyond the possible in one magic trick that she performs, and that's all; far less than in magic realist novels like Midnight's Children that no library would put into the fantasy genre shelves.

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