It almost seems contrived to constantly sing the praises of book groups (be they online or face to face) and the fact that they make you read books you never normally would, yet I am going to do that again today. One of the truest joys of a book group can be finding an author previously unknown to you that you enjoy so much you can’t wait to read more of their work, in fact you find yourself regularly looking at their back catalogue and wanting to own it all immediately. This happened with me in reading ‘The Illusionist’ by Jennifer Johnston for the latest meeting of minds of the NTTVBG last week.
‘The Illusionist’ is an intriguing and unsettling tale of the meeting, marriage and separation of Stella (a publisher) and Martyn (an illusionist – not to be confused with a conjurer, especially not in front of the man himself) who meet as strangers on a train in the summer of 1961. Initially unimpressed by this random man who wants to befriend her Stella is soon won over by what she believes is love and accepts his swift proposal of marriage, once married though Stella is bound into a world of secrecy, not just of her husbands but also of her own, and an ominous side to her husband begins to show through.
It isn’t giving anything away to say that the book is set after Martyn’s untimely death (he is blown up along with hundreds of doves from his infamous act in an IRA bombing) and funeral as Stella’s estranged daughter Robin comes to visit her when the book opens. As the two women discuss Martyn, Stella is reminded of the past and we switch between the present and the past and discover how the couple’s relationship developed and changes over time. The mystery that initially attracts and draws Stella to Martyn soon fades becoming secrecy and a calculated, controlling and subtle bullying behaviour of his true character starts to submerge which is in some parts quite dark and disturbing for the reader. It will also make you so angry in parts that you almost can’t speak, but that to me showed me I was deeply involved with the story and the characters.
It’s hard to say anymore without ruining the book because it’s a book that slowly but surely hooks you in and leaves you wanting more even once the final page is turned. It is certainly a book that will stay with me for quite sometime. I will fully admit I had some slight trepidation with the book initially as Johnston alternates between time periods suddenly and often with the same narrative, yet with the end result its well worth muddling through the first ten pages as the book will win you over with its subtle brilliance.
I have to say from initially feeling unsure about the book I was soon completely engrossed and had finished the book in a sitting or two and I can’t imagine there are many people that couldn’t be spell bound (pun intended) by this novel. I would highly recommend this to any of you who didn’t join in the NTTVBG and a huge thanks to Kim for putting this book and indeed this author on my reading radar, I will be looking out for much more of Jennifer Johnston’s work in the future. Has anyone else read this or any of Johnston’s other works? Do you have any particular recommendations for what I should read next?
Don’t forget that the NTTVBG is having a week off so we will be back on the 11th to discuss Neil Bartlett’s ‘Skin Lane’ right here at Savidge Reads, hope to see you all then.