It's been a very long time since I've read a book by Jennifer Johnston.
Looking back I see I read The Christmas Tree in 1989, just after I'd read Incidental Music by Francoise Sagan and I followed it with To Have and To Hold by Deborah Moggach and then This is Not a Novel in 2003 preceded by In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig and followed by The Element of Water by Stevie Davies.
That feels like a really wonderful reading selection and just seeing those titles reminds of where I was and what I was doing as I read, because context and surrounding reads both seem to be increasingly significant in my reading life right now.
Quite a few books haven't worked recently because of what's gone before, it's that reading of a brilliant book that somehow spoils me for what's next, the bar is high and books need to match up.
The minute I started The Illusionist I knew I was going to be alright because Jennifer Johnston is the consummate story-weaver and my thanks to Kimbofo of Reading Matters for choosing this one for the NTTVBG (even if it did unwittingly break our 'written in the last 5 years rule) and reminding me how quietly brilliant Jennifer Johnstone's writing is. This isn't brash, showy razzle-dazzle, much more like quiet introspection with space for a reader to expand their own thoughts, time to immerse and let their own feelings and emotions enter the arena and play with the plot, interact with it.
So Stella McNamara finds herself wed to Martyn (with a 'y' please) Glover, the enigmatic illusionist ...not a conjurer and definitely not a magician in his own eyes, but in mine as a reader a complete form of low-life as he proceeds to disempower and manipulate the hapless Stella with emotional abuse of the worst kind. It's subtle in the first instance as this illusion of a relationship develops, becoming increasingly overt as Martyn moves Stella to an isolated country home and creates his mysterious world behind the locked doors of a barn gathering in two hundred doves to help him do it.
Martyn, with a group of equally enigmatic friends, is secretly developing an illusionist act that will tour the stages of the world and be unsurpassed for its sleight of hand and deception of the eye, yet Stella knows nothing about him or his past
'I have invented myself, he once said to me. 'There is no need for you to pry into how I achieved this trick'
The structure of the story feels innovative, told in the first person from Stella's point of view, alternating between past and present, as if told from opposite ends and with that sense of increasing tension as you wait for the plots to meet. Plus all those delicious questions I asked myself about Stella's reliability as a narrator and those little moments of uncertainty that always surface when I only know one side of the story.
For me the significance of the 1995 date of publication was important.
Emotional abuse then still seriously underrated as of any importance or considered with the same degree of seriousness as domestic violence. Violence meant physical abuse and it is only in recent years that emotional abuse has been recognised as equally damaging and on a par with violence and we had some good debate around all this and a great deal more.
Stella's ultimate decision and action made all the more poignant and brave given the social setting in which she found herself.
The locked forbidden room of course had me dashing off to read up on Bluebeard and also an essay on Jennifer Johnston by Shari Benstock in one of those £1 finds in the market, Twentieth Century Women Novelists edited by Thomas Staley (published by Macmillan in 1982). Essays on Margaret Drabble, Susan Hill, P.D.James, Doris Lessing, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark and more make this a book that is constantly off the shelf. It may be dated in its theory but the observations are of the time and very astute. Exploring Jennifer Johnstone's earlier novels Shari Benstock identifies the frequently closed, suffocated, lonely and inward-turning world that is portrayed and nothing could be truer of The Illusionist.
If you read it prepare to try and stay calm whilst you watch Stella steadily crushed and folded into an empty shell.
Try and stop yourself wagging that finger disapprovingly at the ghastly child until you realise that it is not just Stella who has been manipulated.
Expect to want to strangle Martin or at least hope that his doves will turn raptor and peck him to bits... seriously, Jennifer Johnstone offers not a single note of charm or appeal to his character.
And notice that you may even have your toes crossed that Stella will ... well that Stella will survive.
Except you know that, because this is a book that gives you the answer to the sum at the beginning and then very slowly reveals all the working out, nothing more guaranteed to hold my attention and I still can't figure out why knowing the ending at the beginning doesn't spoil the book...
Next NTTVBG will be Skin Lane by Neil Bennett over at Savidge Reads this Sunday.