The Prestige by Christopher Priest (1995) 360 p.

Christopher Priest has never been a novelist particularly well-known outside of science fiction circles, despite the fact that he brushes closer to the literary genre than most of his cohorts. (His novel Inverted World, one of the most gripping I’ve ever read, features on the NYRB Classics list.) The Prestige is probably his most famous book, largely because of the successful film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.

I hadn’t seen the film, but I knew the outline: a deadly feud between two stage magicians in Victorian England. I vaguely recalled being spoiled on one of the plot elements or twists, which I worried would compromise the book, but fortunately the plot is a bit more complex than that and The Prestige still had more than enough twists and turns to keep me intrigued. One of the early mysteries involves how one of the magicians, Borden, performs an illusion in which he appears to travel from one cabinet to another on the other side of the stage in no time at all. Clues in the text make it fairly clear early on that he has somehow managed to create a living, breathing double of himself, but this is far from the end of The Prestige’s mysteries.

The Prestige was one of those books in which I knew my final verdict would depend on how it turned out. It could have been either stellar, or hugely disappointing. (Although I suppose theoretically anything can have a stellar ending. Schroedinger’s Cat.) It doesn’t quite wrap up all the loose ends, but in a way that’s a good thing. Suffice to say I was satisfied with it – although I was a little puzzled that one of the characters’ seemingly mundane theories about one of the other characters was, apparently, correct after all. It’s that sort of confusing, multiple viewpoint epistolary novel, where people set forth theories or come to their best conclusion, and you naturally assume they’re wrong.

Having not seen the film, I can’t say how closely it sticks to the book, and whether it’s still worth reading The Prestige if you already know the plot. But if you haven’t, I can definitely recommend it as one of Christopher Priest’s better novels; an intriguing story of mystery and deception in 19th century London.

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