Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 288 pages; 2007.
According to the O’Brien Pocket History of Irish Writers, Jennifer Johnston is “skilled in building up
and maintaining atmosphere” — and that couldn’t be more true of The Illusionist.
Initially the story appears to be a rather soft, gentle one, but there’s a fiercely dark heart beating at the centre of it and it doesn’t take long before you are enveloped in a fug of disquiet and brooding intensity.
It’s essentially a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage between two strangers that initially meet on a train in the early 1960s. While career-minded Stella, still living in the shadow of her domineering mother, is at first wary of Martyn, an illusionist, she realises that he offers her escape and adventure.
The story is told retrospectively from Stella’s point-of-view after Martyn has died in an IRA bomb attack in London “in a station wagon with a hundred and fifty white doves neatly caged in the back”. (The very image of a “magician” being blown up with his birds has a blackly comic edge to it, don’t you think?)
Her adult daughter, Robin, with whom she has a difficult relationship, comes to visit after the funeral, and it is through their conversations (or should I say arguments and tiffs?) that Stella looks back on her life with a man she did not know very well and eventually left.
From the outset, it’s pretty clear that Martyn is a little odd. Even just the way he spells his name is unusual, and despite warnings from her mother that perhaps he wasn’t the right chap to marry, Stella goes ahead anyway. And yet, it doesn’t take long for her to suspect that all is not well. She barely knows her husband, indeed she doesn’t even know what he does for a living! And when he’s at home it’s not much better: he has a locked room where he claims to be working on a show-stopping illusion but she doesn’t know what he really gets up to and why he is visited by strange men at odd hours.
When they move to the country, albeit against Stella’s wishes, she’s expected to give up her job, tend the house and produce children. She’s expected to become a doting wife, to put her interests aside in order to look after his. She’s expected not to ask her husband any questions about the mysterious and secretive life he leads. And she’s expected to put up with his long absences and unexplained trips abroad.
Stella’s only escape from this one-sided relationship comes in the form of glorious new typewriter, gifted to her by a friend and former colleague. This gives her the chance to establish a new career as a novelist, even though Martyn laughs at the idea (“A writer? What on earth do you have to write about?”)
I’m only skimming the surface of this novel, really, because there’s all kinds of issues — emotional abuse, the relationship between mothers and daughters, the right of a woman to be seen as more than just a wife and mother — and motifs — foxes, doves and illusions — that I haven’t even touched on. But in the grand canon of Jennifer Johnston’s work, this is a rather extraordinary novel dealing with important themes in a subtle and beautifully understated manner. If you’ve not read anything by Ms Johnston before, this may well be the place to start.