The Magician’s Wife is my final read as part of my Brian Moore at 100 Readalong this year and it was also Brian Moore’s final novel.
Published in 1997, the book is a fitting culmination of many of the themes that featured in his previous work: the clash of ideologies, political subterfuge, the notion of illusion, questions of faith and a skillfully depicted female point of view.
While reading Flaubert’s correspondence with George Sand, Moore became intrigued by the real-life story of the celebrated conjurer Robert-Houdin, who was sent to Algeria in 1856 by Napoleon III “in an attempt to destroy the nefarious influence of the marabouts on the native population”. The plan was to undermine the power of the marabouts (holy men) through a show of French ‘magic powers’ and dissuade them from taking part in a jihad, or holy war.
In Moore’s hands, Robert-Houdin becomes Henri Lambert, a renowned magician who has given up on his stage performances to concentrate on creating mechanical marionettes and inventions. This quiet life in a manor house outside Tours is not what his much younger wife, Emmeline expected when she married Lambert, whom she met when she joined him on stage as a volunteer during one of his performances in Paris. When the pair are invited to a week-long ‘serie’ hosted by Lord Napoleon, Emmeline feels ill-equipped to attend, but Napoleon and the charming Colonel Deniau have plans for Lambert in Algeria, and the couple are drawn into acquiescence during a week of banquets, hunting parties and splendour.
Lambert sees his chance to become a member of the elite, rather than a mere entertainer, and Emmeline has her part to play in the plan. “Now he was more than a magician,” Emmeline observes. “Now, he was France’s emissary on an important mission.”
Moore’s story is, typically, told from Emmeline’s point of view. It is interesting that Moore’s inspiration for the story came from Flaubert as there are interesting parallels between Emmeline and Emma Bovary, and indeed, between Emmeline and Moore’s other frustrated wife Sheila Redden from his earlier novel The Doctor’s Wife. Despite her initial misgivings, Emmeline finds her place in the rarefied world of the French court. Drawn by Captain Deniau’s flirtations, she imagines an affair with him and freedom from the unfulfilling constrictions of life with her husband. However, Moore has created a much more interesting character than mere adulterous wife and Emmeline has strong opinions and morals and an unquestionable faith in what is right.
Some aspects of life at Napoleon’s court disgust her and upon arrival in Algeria, she is inexplicably drawn to the country and to its people. She comes to question the colonialism that she and her husband are perpetuating and is entranced by what she sees as the more honest and fervent practice of Islam as compared to the mechanical and showy displays of piety evident in what she has experienced of Christianity back in France.
All they ask is God’s help to guide them in the right path. Isn’t that what all of us should ask?
As the role that she has been expected to play becomes clearer to Emmeline, she comes to understand that she too has been flattered and tricked by Captain Deniau solely to advance the mission and this knowledge changes her in ways she could never have imagined.
Emmeline’s moral dilemma is a springboard for Moore to explore questions of empire, colonialisation and political manipulation, but the novel is never heavy-handed and never clear-cut. Moore’s characters are all depicted with a depth and understanding, and he even elicits a sympathy for Lambert, who, in his own way, loves his wife and feels that what he is doing in Algeria is for the greater good.
What elevates The Magician’s Wife is the fact that it is a superbly constructed and perfectly paced narrative story that furnishes both an adroitly managed plot and attentively detailed portrayals of two remote, and utterly different, civilizations, all in fewer than two hundred and fifty pages. The novel contains some fantastic set-pieces, from the opulent serie at Napoleon’s palace, to Lambert’s first performance in Algiers in a mosque turned theatre where his skills as a conjuror have the desired intimidating effect on the crowd of sheiks and marabouts.
The book is shot through with wonderful evocations of place and atmosphere which never distract from the propulsive plot.
Above her, the startling blue sky formed a vault over colonnaded halls, the intense sunlight cast a golden hue on veined marble paving, ornate carvings, porcelain walls, and, in the centre of the court, flecked the gushing waters of a large fountain with iridescent light. This sunlight, this courtyard, was Africa; Moorish, magical and strange… Suddenly she wished that Africa were her home.
As the novel builds to a first-rate climax, where Lambert has agreed to be shot by one of the sheik’s own pistols, rather than his own trick one, Moore’s skill is tantamount. He has always written with a brevity that belies an enviable depth and this book is no different. In The Magician’s Wife, he is at the top of his game in terms of sheer storytelling. That he creates such a compelling narrative within the confines of true-life historical fiction is equally impressive.
This deceptively simple novel is its own illusion, revealing a depth of characterisation, a striking sense of place and a compelling narrative. Like Emmeline and Algeria, it is impossible not to fall under his spell as he delivers yet another work of triumphant literary magic.
Claire at Word by Word also reviewed The Magician’s Wife this month and you can check out her review here.
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number read: 357
number remaining: 389
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!