No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, September 01, 1999

The Magician's Assistant -- Ann Patchett

I wish to recommend this novel to everyone. Please go and buy it. It is out in small-format paperback now: definitely not SF or fantasy, though it may be magic realism - of an odd kind, since it is set in North rather than South America, and most of the magic is the 'mundane' sort with cards and rabbits.

The novel begins with a death: the death of Parsifal, stage name of Guy Fetters. Sabine, his stage assistant and his wife (a relationship based more on mutual affection than anything else: they shared a house with Parsifal's male lover, the Vietnamese Phan, who predeceased him) is left to pick up the pieces of his life - and to encounter his family for the first time. Needless to say, the clash of Sabine's Jewish / Californian life with that of Parsifal's mother and sisters, who live an unexceptionally comfortable life in Nebraska, churns up some old secrets and creates a few new ones.

Patchett's writing is wonderfully evocative: a couple of weekends ago I was discussing the emptiness of America (compared to Britain), and by coincidence had just been reading this:

Dorothy, Albertine and Kitty, quite alive in Nebraska, eluded her entirely. In fact, the entire state of Nebraska defied imagination. Who actually lived there? … Sabine got the Rand McNally road atlas out of the trunk of her car and thumbed through to Nebraska, a page kept perfectly clean and uncreased from lack of use. Other pages showed green for hills, darker green for mountains, blue for rivers and the deep thumbprints of lakes, but Nebraska was white, a page as still as fallen snow. It was not crosshatched with roads, overrun with the hard lines of interstate systems. It was a state on which you could make lists, jot down phone numbers, draw pictures. And there, in the beating heart of nowhere, Sabine found Alliance. Alliance, Nebraska. How could he not have mentioned that? It didn't look like something you would simply forget.

That's another big part of the book: the elements of a person that you discover only when they're gone. This would, I think, be a very cathartic book to read if you had recently suffered a bereavement: either that, or it would be impossible to read as being uncomfortably accurate.

Sabine isn't really left alone, though: she dreams, and to the reader the dreams seem to be true dreams. Even better: unlike the typical fantasy-novel dreamer, she doesn't recall every detail of the dreams. Often it's only a recollection of a blue swimming pool, or a particular phrase, that stays with her on waking: but the dreams are presented as something real. She doesn't dream about Parsifal, either: she dreams long and coherent conversations with Phan, who explains that Parsifal's 'embarrassed' or 'afraid' to enter her dreams this soon. Phan, although never 'alive' in the novel, is as real - and, literally, haunting - a character as any of the others.

When Parsifal's mother visits her in LA, new perspectives open on Sabine's quiet, well-ordered life. She decides to return the visit, and finds herself in snowbound Nebraska, playing witness to the marital upheavals of his sisters. In another touch of realism, she finds out why he left by accident: everyone thinks that someone else must have told her.

The novel concludes with two very different and significant events. One of them was vaguely predictable, but isn't taken far enough to feel like a fix: the intrusion of romance, of a sort, into Sabine's emotional desert. (All sorts of interesting aspects to this one, too: but I won't give it away.) The other event is one that I think might make this magic realism: I won't be giving much away if I divulge that Sabine, always the assistant, ends up doing something that simply isn't possible in terms of stage magic, but looks very like real magic. (She learns it in a dream).

I'm looking forward to reading this novel again, although for a change this isn't because there are parts that don't make sense until the finale. Very highly recommended indeed.