Who do you instantly think of when you hear the word "magician"? One of the famous modern illusionists perhaps, such as David Copperfield or David Blane? Maybe someone who took themselves slightly less seriously, like the late Paul Daniels or Tommy Cooper? Or maybe you think of a more generic magician, dressed in a suit with a cape and white gloves, making a rabbit appear out of a top hat in a flash of smoke? Whatever your answer, I bet you didn't think of a woman. Even today, there are very few famous female magicians or illusionists, not counting the sequin-bedecked and often scantily clad magicians' assistants.
Greer Macallister purposely chooses a female show-woman in the starring role of her novel, The Magician's Lie, to highlight the inequality that was inherent in turn-of-the-century society (and, to a lesser extent, still today). The Amazing Arden is the most famous illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage - a daring and provocative reversal of the usual sexual roles. One night, she unexpectedly swaps her trademark saw for an axe, to the audience's delight and horror. When her husband is found dead later that night, below the trapdoor of the stage, she is the obvious suspect and is quickly arrested by an off-duty policeman. In custody, handcuffed to a chair, she pleads her innocence and starts to tell her poignant and spell-binding story.
Arden is a compelling and bewitching story-teller, and her life story is filled with lost chances and betrayals, horrifying abuse and new beginnings, fascinating anecdotes of her adventures in her various jobs before she became an illusionist and how she came to make it big. Despite the setting in a small police station, the story is not the claustrophobic huis clos that I was expecting because Arden's narrative takes us around the whole country, through various social strata and numerous encounters. Her story is captivating and, at times, harrowing, but the title of the novel always leaves the reader, just like the policeman, wondering if she is being truthful or just spinning a yarn to try to win her freedom.
With her whole livelihood and, indeed, her very identity based on making people believe things that aren't true, it is hard to believe in her trustworthiness, but, whether it is entirely true or not, her tale still offers an interesting and thought-provoking view of women's place in society at the time. The Amazing Arden never existed but her mentor in the novel, Adelaide Herrmann, did, and her bullet catch illusion in New York City in 1897 was also a real event.
The Magician's Lie is Greer Macallister's debut novel and although it has only just been released in the UK, it is already a US bestseller. I'd love to read more of her work, maybe featuring Adelaide and Arden, even as cameo roles, because I'm sure they still have a lot more tales to tell.
star rating : 4.5/5
RRP : £14.99 (hardback), £8.99 (ebook)
Disclosure : I received a copy of the book in order to write an honest review.