Christopher Priest’s award-winning novel, The Prestige, is classified as science fiction, although for the first half or so of the book it’s a puzzle as to why. It begins as a piece of solid Victorian melodrama, charting the rivalry between two turn of the century magicians, the ex-working class Alfred Borden, and the ex-aristocrat, Rupert Angier. Both have fallen in love with the spectacle of magic at an early age, and both have thrown themselves into the profession with a passion that is equaled by their difficult financial circumstances. They have a lot at stake, being in it for both love and money. Early in their careers, an incident provokes a bitter rift between them. Borden happens to come across Angier working as a medium, and in his horror of this kind of deception, he unmasks him in the middle of a séance. The reader has to wait a good deal longer to find out why this incident should prove so devastating to Angier (and there is a good reason), but we do know that it triggers a series of acts of sabotage. Angier turns up at Borden’s shows time and again, denouncing the secrets of his tricks to the startled audience. This is only the start of a life-long feud that will have serious consequences on their respective families a hundred year later.
At the heart of the novel lies a fascination with secrets and with doubles. Alfred Borden creates a breath-taking trick called ‘The Newly Transported Man’. He begins by getting into a cabinet, of the kind familiar to anyone who has seen a magic show. Then, he tosses his top hat into the air, the cabinet collapses behind him, and he appears to magically transport himself across the stage to another cabinet, leaning out to catch the hat as it falls. Over time he will add further special effects to this routine by using that recent discovery, electricity. Ruper Angier is obsessed with Borden’s trick because he does not know how it’s done. In his desperation to outwit and to better Borden, he travels across the world to America to track down a mad but inspired scientist, Nikola Tesla, who offers him a dangerous but spectacular alternative to ordinary magic.
It’s hard to say much more without giving away spoilers, and the power of the book resides in the lure of the secret and the desire to crack it. But the novel veers between realistic solutions to the secrets and fantastic ones, and I have to say that in doing so, it rather lost me. How I would like to say I loved this novel! It is very clever and tricky, and the different stories of Borden and Angier, framed neatly by stuggle of their present-day ancestors to understand what happened in the past, intertwine with each other beautifully. But the point about magic, for me, is that something extraordinary appears to have happened, only the solution to it is almost disappointingly mundane. Priest creates a far more exciting, lurid and startling story than that. But it relies on the intrusion of the fantastic, in other words, something that the reader cannot know for sure is possible – most frequently seen these days in the form of the vampire. I’ve looked online at reviews and everyone, but everyone loves this book. I’m the only person I can find to have their doubts, and those we must put down to purely personal taste. I don’t mind the fantastic at all if I know from the outset that it will appear, but after reading three-quarters of a realistic novel, it’s arrival put me off. Once my mind had registered the thought, ‘oh but that can’t really happen…..’ I was half out of the story, and even though the end was very gripping and clever, my heart wasn’t in it.
I also found the early stages of the novel a tad dull. After the brief opening frame, we are recounted the story of Alfred Borden by means of his notebook. And then we get Rupert Angier’s diaries too. Once again, out of purely personal taste, I’m less keen on the diary as a narrative device. Also, having just finished a Victorian sensational novel before moving onto this one, I couldn’t help but notice the differences between what contemporary novelists write as Victorian pastiche, and what the real thing actually sounds like. That slightly stilted, pedantic tone exists only in the mind of the contemporary novelist. This book reminded me overwhelmingly of Iain Pear’s great tombstone of a novel, Stone’s Fall, which was again a narrative of slightly tedious verbosity that built up to very clever tricks of plot, leaving one to wonder whether the wait was really worth it. The Prestige is probably the better novel of the two, though.
But I feel churlish! Objectively, I can see this is a very good novel. And if you like magic and magicians and the fantastic and a little mild horror thrown in, you should really try it. Plus, the greatest compensatory factor for me was how interesting Priest is about the whole issue of duality. Go read it for yourself! Don’t let me influence you unduly on this one.