Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Novel Review - The Prestige

Day 1: The best book you read last year

This is part of a 30 day book review challnge thing. You can read my rather glib introduction here.


Two 19th century stage illusionists, the aristocratic Rupert Angier and the working-class Alfred Borden, engage in a bitter and deadly feud; the effects are still being felt by their respective families a hundred years later. Working in the gaslight-and-velvet world of Victorian music halls, they prowl edgily in the background of each other's shadowy life, driven to the extremes by a deadly combination of obsessive secrecy and insatiable curiosity. At the heart of the row is an amazing illusion they both perform during their stage acts. The secret of the magic is simple, and the reader is in on it almost from the start, but to the antagonists the real mystery lies deeper. Both have something more to hide than the mere workings of a trick. 

The Prestige was something of a first for me. It was the first time I had listened to an audio book since I was a child, but I was surprised by just how absorbing the activity was. Surprisingly it was very similar to reading, but a damn sight easier. I also managed to avoid the Christopher Nolan film, so went into it without much prior knowledge to it. I'd heard something about feuding narrators that sounded intriguing, but little else.

The book opens with a man who has come to investigate, as a journalist who specialises in writing about reports of the paranormal, an old mansion that is being used as a monastry of sorts. Immediately there's a subtly creepy feeling to the text, a strangeness to it. It's a classic horror set-up, and from the start Priest adeptly conveys a sense that there is a lot we aren't being told about both the protagonist and this place. Soon he meets up with a woman who requested he meet her, one who also sent him a book written by his great-great grandfather: a book on magic and his life as a magician. With the use of this and the journals of her great-great grandfather, she shows him the deep link between their families.

This is a quiet book of mystery and incredible subtlety. It's about secrets and obsession, and carries the quiet sort of intensity such subject material demands. Both Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden are compelling narrators, both flawed and walking the line between villain and hero. You can feel the terrific power of Borden's obsessive nature embued deeply into everything on his side of the narrative, whilst Angier's accountants suggest he has found a rival well matched in this respect.

Really, the central triumph of this work is the structure. The first story we get is Borden's complete accounts of the matter, then Angier comes along and fills in holes and outright contradicts Borden in some respects. By giving us Borden's account first, Priest sets up a very strong context for us to view the story in, so he can then pick it apart again. By the end, we're not enitrely sure what was right or who to support. Along with these two perspectives, there is a third, the metastory in which their descendents read both their accounts. In this narrative is the true brilliance fo the structure revealed. Not only is this a story about two rivals, this is a story spanning generations. Most of the story is being told between the lines.

This novel practically bleeds atmosphere. It's an absorbing and evokative experience, but also one that has a strangely genuine feel to it. it doesn't wallow in melodrama or have a specifically narrative driven structure. Both Borden and Angier swither and debate and act like real people. Considering that this is very much a fantasy book, it ends up feeling incredibly genuine.

Also, the ending still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

It's probably rather clear that I love The Prestige, and really shouldn't be trusted to review the book subjectively. Nonetheless, I truly believe this is a technically brilliant and haunting novel. Read it.

No comments:

Post a Comment