Saturday, May 14, 2011

1. The Prestige (1995) - Christopher Priest

I imagine it was part of his design, and enabled him to take certain preparations in the room where the seance was to be conducted. He and his two young assistants, one male and one female, darkened the room with black blinds, moved unwanted furniture to the side while importing some of their own which they had brought with them, rolled back the carpet to bare the floorboards, and erected a certain wooden cabinet whose size and appearance was enough to convince me that conventional stage magic was about to be performed. I stayed discreetly but attentively in the background while these preparations were put in place. I did not wish to make myself at all interesting to the spiritist, because if he was alert he might have recognised me. The previous week my stage act had drawn a favourable press notice or two.

Set in the 19th Century, the book revolves around two stage illusionists, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, who, after a small confrontation, end up engaging in a bitter feud. As their animosity spirals out of control, it conceals a deeper, darker secret that will haunt the two performers for generations to come.

What I love about this book is that it has many layers to dissect, even after the last page is turned. To be honest when I first finished The Prestige I didn't think it was as great as people had made it out to be. Eerily haunting, yes. Great, no. But then the English Lit nerd in me kicked in and I started to really think about some of the plot lines, the narrative style and the way the story had been constructed as a whole. At times I found it a bit hard to engage in the rivalry between the two illusionists, largely because of the narrative style of the book which took the form of diaries, beginning with one man's life followed by the other. Because of this it was difficult to see the relationship between motivation and action, with only some clarity afforded in the latter half of the novel through Angier's diary where one could retrospectively compare the two men's version of events. I believe this is why I felt unfulfilled, because while by the end you know the secret, the novel still manages to strike you as simply being about the rivalry between two men. But, and this is why I think Priest really is a great storyteller, the secret only takes it's full form in thinking back upon the story, combining the two narratives and that of the illusionists' descendents. Throughout the text Priest drops hints, particularly in the form of key phrases and words, that like the illusionists themselves, are not all they appear to be. In hindsight, these hints absolutely tease you with their obviousness. 
I am particularly reminded of one story that Borden tells about a Chinese illusionist whose secret to his most popular trick is so obvious, that no one suspects it, and it means a lifetime of deception. I find that this is what The Prestige is about - a lifetime of illusions and deceit, with a secret as bright as day at its heart. This novel is well worth the read and I recommend paying attention to the tone and style of the narration, particularly any changes in mood, as well as repeated phrases. I firmly believe that good books are the ones that you can read over and over again, but that the best are the ones that compel you to look again.

Are you looking closely?

4 Stars

No comments:

Post a Comment