You know how everyone says “don’t judge a book by its cover”? It’s sound advice, for sure, but come on, don’t tell me you’ve never bought a book because it had a beautiful cover. Ok, how about a beautiful cover, and a semi-interesting blurb at the back?
That’s not usually how I choose what I’m going to read next, but that’s exactly how I ended up reading Rosie Thomas‘ The Illusionists. I got The Illusionists at a second-hand bookstore. I thought the cover was quite beautiful, and the title promising. The write-up at the back of the book included…
One night at a run-down theater, (Eliza) meets the charismatic Devil Wix – showman, master of illusion, fickle friend. Drawn into his circle, Eliza becomes the catalyst of change for his colleagues – a dwarf, an eccentric engineer and an artist – as well as Devil himself….
OK, I’m sold! It sounded intriguing enough – a little bit of theater, a little bit of magic, maybe some romance…? It was also set in Victorian London, so it was perfect! I was thinking it was some pretty light reading in between the Hemingways I’ve recently finished. I thought it would be something like The Night Circus, but hopefully better.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that The Illusionists was not the light read I was hoping for. It starts in 1885, when the enigmatic Devil Wix, a magician of some considerable talent, rich in charm, but poor in finances, accidentally meets Carlo, a pick-pocketing dwarf with the same financial dilemma. Drawn by mutual interests and circumstances, Carlo invites Devil to join him in an audition for the newly renovated Palmyra Theater. The two magicians are hired on the spot, and with Carlo’s talents and Devil’s charisma, they lose no time in developing a spectacular magical act like no other. Along with some other talented individuals – an engineer who can make life-like automatons, a couple of contortionists, and others with their own unique gimmicks, they put on a nightly variety show for Grady, the owner of the newly opened theater.
Not long after their show’s opening night, Devil meets Eliza, a strong-willed individual out to prove to the world that she’s a truly modern, independent woman. Eliza lives on her own at a ladies’ boarding house and studies art while making a living posing nude at her art school. Needless to say, our strong, independent, modern heroine falls hard for Devil, despite what her intuition tells her about the sort of man he is. It doesn’t take long for Eliza, Devil, Carlo and Herr Bayer (the automaton engineer) to form a sort of friendship based on shared experiences.
Driven by ambition, and encouraged by the success of their magic act, Devil sets out to get the management and ownership of the Palmyra from its greedy owner Grady. At the time, it seemed that this endeavor would benefit everyone; it would give the performers freedom to choose what to perform, and how to improve their acts. It would also give Devil control over the theater’s success, for everyone’s financial gain. However, as these things go, not everyone was happy about Devil’s management and newfound power and authority.
The novel’s time frame is far longer than I expected. The story spans a period of almost 10 years, following the lives and trials of the performers of the Palmyra Theater, and the ups and downs of not only Devil’s and Eliza’s relationship, but their relationships with the other characters. Far from being the light, romantic read I was hoping for, The Illusionist is actually a rather dark tale that shows the different sides of ambition, friendship, love, and obsession.
Honestly, despite being drawn to its cover and premise, it’s not really the type of book I read, though, it turned out ok in the end. The story was interesting enough to keep me reading, but I felt that the novel was lacking some aspects, mostly character development. I think the title The Illusionist, doesn’t much refer to the main characters’ profession; indeed, the magic acts were not really the main focus of the story, but refers more to the illusions the characters put on for other people, to hide their true selves.
The Illusionists (2014) – Rosie Thomas
Harper; 513 pages (tpb)
Personal rating: 2.5/5