From the bestselling author of the phenomenally successful The Kashmir Shawl
As a turbulent and change-filled century draws to a close, there has never been a better time to alter your fortune. But for a beautiful young woman of limited means, Eliza’s choices appear to lie between the stifling domesticity of marriage or a downwards spiral to the streets – no matter how determined she is to forge her own path.
One night at a run-down theatre, she meets the charismatic Devil Wix – showman, master of illusion, fickle friend. Drawn into his circle, Eliza becomes the catalyst of change for his colleagues – a dwarf, an eccentric engineer, and an artist – as well as Devil himself. And as Eliza embarks on a dangerous adventure, she must decide which path to choose, and how far she should go when she holds all their lives in her hands.
It’s quite fitting that The Illusionists, just like an actual illusion, is entirely not what it seems.
Unfortunately, while illusions and magic acts are generally enjoyable in their unpredictability and twisting of reality, Rosie Thomas’s novel is not.
I picked up The Illusionists expecting to read a thrilling and eccentric novel surrounding a modern woman’s intrigue with the London’s theatrical world in the late 1800s. “A dangerous adventure” of a young woman’s journey towards emancipation through art. That’s what the novel’s synopsis implied, after all. Instead, I got two emotionally distraught male performers, a wax-modeler (also male), a psychotic engineer (guess what? Male) and a run-down theatre. Oh, and featuring as the love interest of every single one of the afore-mentioned characters is Eliza – a middle-class woman who poses as a life model on Tuesdays, and considers herself “forward-thinking” (she’s not).
Eliza was infuriating – and even more infuriating was the author’s evident conviction that Eliza was a woman of her own means. Sure, Eliza did things that were not technically societally acceptable for her class, but let’s have a little more girl power! If you’re going to have a strong female protagonist and write about her journey towards emancipation, then don’t only introduce her on page 66! Don’t let her slip backwards into conformity just as she’s finally getting somewhere! Don’t let the men always overshadow her! Don’t let her become a damsel in distress just to showcase the courageous virtues of your male characters!
(And yes, I am putting Eliza’s actions into the context that she was a woman in London in 1885. Come on. Loosen your corset a little, at least, Miss Eliza.)
On top of all of this, I was also astounded to note that Thomas switched perceptions between her characters as if even she didn’t know who she was supposed to be writing about. One moment I would be in Eliza’s head, but then the next moment Devil’s outlook would take over without warning. That’s the danger with writing in third-person perspective – you have to be so careful about switching between characters and throwing the reader all over the place. And Thomas fell right into that trap.
Around two-thirds of the way through, I couldn’t take it any more.
But I persevered, because I’d already struggled through 380 pages. I could handle two hundred more. (I’d just like to point out that a novel this long-winded could definitely have been cut down by at least two hundred pages.)
Then I got to page 454, and my face did this:
At which point I decided Eliza was not worth my efforts (I’d screamed at her for just about the entire novel), and that my hope for humanity had diminished by a further eighty percent or so.
What a waste of good ideas. The Illusionists had so much potential, and it really was quite upsetting to see it spiral towards inadequacy, then below that to distastefulness. Additionally, Thomas has a truly beautiful style. It’s a pity she threw it away.
Rating: A very generous 2/5 because it started off relatively well.
Recommended to: Real illusionists who want spare paper to use as kindling in their arson tricks.
The Last Word
I’m putting the spoiler in this section, because I have to acknowledge the event that takes place on page 454. If you’re going to read the novel (although, why?) don’t read on.
Okay. From around page 300, there are zero climactic points in the novel apart from the event that occurs in the very last pages, which might have been tragic had I not lost the ability to care by then. The only time I had a change in emotion large enough to constitute a reaction was from pages 454 to 459, and that reaction was to throw the stupid book at the wall.
In this period, Eliza finds out that her husband, Devil, has been sleeping with another performer because he feels like she’s pushing him away (she is – but only because she’s just given birth to his baby). She threatens to cut off a key part of his anatomy (at which point I got excited because she was finally showing some initiative). But then they have furious animal sex and she forgives him.
How is this a portrait of a self-governing intellectual, who aims to forge her own path? To me, it seems like a fragile collection of dangerous emotions desperate for male attention – entirely not the image of a modern woman, even for Eliza’s time. Come on, Thomas. Step up your game.