Thursday, 14 April 2011

Book Review: The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Pratchett

At the heart of this story all the women in this book are portrayed as alone and lonely whether they are married or have been married in the past.

Sabine accepts her future husbands offer to be his widow and she consents knowing that there will never be any opportunity to be his wife, no chance of anything more than this, his widow. Parsifal does not want a wife, but his generous offer masks the cruelty of unrequited love. He knows Sabine loves him, she has stood by him for more than twenty years as his faithful assistant, a long and intimate relationship based on secrets but with trust at its heart and a mutual understanding and respect for their profession. Ultimately his final act is meant as a loving act of kindness, he wants to ensure that Sabine is financially secure. However, well meant this desire is, financial security is not what Sabine desires.

Dot never stood up to her husband and she accepted Al’s rage as part of her married life. Kitty does stand up to Howard, her husband, but pays a heavy price for this brave attempt, because ultimately it does her no good, except to confirm that she has made a poor marriage. Yet only Bertie, Dot’s youngest daughter, appears to have any genuine opportunity of happiness and a chance to make a good arrangement, if only she can find the courage to leave home.

Throughout this story there is a false sense of security, as each character clings to what they know or believes makes them secure, whether it is a floundering relationship or a home, as each one of them hides their own ‘hurt.’

Sabine is the main character relaying facts and information sometimes in a dream like state that feels incredibly real as she grieves for her loss, because Parsifal’s death was a shock. She struggles to come to terms with the inevitable changes to her life and makes the necessary adjustments.

Ann Pratchett’s skill lies in her ability to weave a drama of intensely personal events but in revealing each new fact she is careful to dispel the sting that this shocking news might hold, by handling each event in a neutral manner. It’s as if she defuses the bomb as she unwraps it.

Sabine was as happy as she was allowed to be with Parsifal. The personal limits placed on their relationship and marriage made if far from perfect but Sabine settled for this arrangement knowing that it would be far from passionate. She knows she will never have a committed physical affair with him, not like his with Phan, his previous lover who died before Parsifal.

All the characters, even minor ones, survive these events, with varying degrees of success, that Parsifal created by his desire to keep his past early life a secret. But as a proficient magician his ability to build an illusion and maintain the deception formed part of his daily life, he was adept at slight of hand and only shared information on a need to know basis. Parsifal specifically chose never to share his alternative history with Sabine. No consideration for how she might feel after his death is given. Was he selfish? Not really. He did not need to remind himself of his past life, the ugly truth of events that damaged him.

If any magic has occurred it is Ann Pratchett’s skilful manipulation of the reader who with careful guidance is shown each characters fears revealed and yet we never quite know exactly what they think. Each appears to be reticent to let go. Speak their mind. This theme of sadness runs throughout the book as each character grieves their loss. Dot accepts that her son would never return home to a small town mentality that would consider it necessary to remind him, daily, of his transgression. Kitty never really got over losing her twin brother, she felt abandoned yet she too knew he would never return, not here, to these narrow confines. But being excluded from her brother’s life ruined hers. Bertie never knew her brother or her father but she had to survive, grow up watching these two women cope, bear and mourn their losses.

Ann Pratchett has written an eloquent piece embroidered with lush descriptions using Los Angeles and Nebraska as good stark contrasts and backdrops for emotions and justification of characters emotions and life choices. Her characters are well crafted, flawed individuals, who struggle and do their best to lead good lives from the hand that they have been dealt. It would be too easy to say that Ann Pratchett used ‘Magic’ as a metaphor, it would be unfair and too simplistic to suggest that she has deliberately used slight of hand, or misdirected readers because this is a beguiling story from start to finish. Her use of magic tricks to frame her story equates to artist creativity, it’s even adroit.

The main character, Parsifal, which each character relates to and interacts with is never present, except as a phantom. He dies in the opening paragraph and yet his hold over proceedings is immense. And the fact he is homosexual has very little to do with this story which is primarily a strong tale of love versus loss versus release.

I strongly recommended this book as a great read!


  1. Okay, I'm sold! I so want to read this book now, after having read your wonderful review of it. Thanks Kay!

  2. Hi Kay - loved State of Wonder by Ann P.(reviewed recently on my blog) Not sure from your review how much I would like this one, but will certainly give it a go. She really gets into her characters, I find..