Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
Neil Bartlett came to my attention a few years ago when I read his decidedly tense 2008 novel Skin Lane. It is set in London’s fur trade during the 1960s and is the story of a Mr F who develops an obsession with a young man. In some ways an allegory of the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, this novel succeeded in some masterful storytelling – full of suspense, hinting at nastiness to come, but always subtle and so heartbreaking.
Bartlett’s new novel is no less suspenseful; another slowburn story with a sting in its tail. We move back a decade to the 1950s when Variety filled the theatres, especially those at the end of the pier. From chorus girls to acrobats, crooners to comedians, every act has its place but needs to keep justifying its position on the showbill.
Before we get there, however, we meet the main protagonist of our tale as a young boy. It’s 1939, he’s about 8 or 9 years old – and he’s standing in the middle of the train tracks in just his underpants with eyes screwed shut and hands clenched into fists at his sides. His legs are lop-sided – the results of childhood polio, he’s an orphan from the nearby home. The train is coming – but luckily he is saved from this attempt at disappearing permanently just in time by a gentleman who spots him from the bridge.
Cut to backstage at the theatre on Wimbledon Broadway some years later. The boy, Reggie, now in his early twenties, is at work making all the preparations for rehearsing Mr Brooke’s magic act. Everything has to be just so. Reggie tells us about it…
Illusion acts are always rehearsed without witnesses; as with certain other bits of life, it all has to happen behind locked doors. In order to describe how this particular rehearsal continued, I’m obviously going to have to break with that convention, but I don’t want anyone to accuse me of taking the magic out of the proceedings. So first I’m going to describe the act as it will be tonight when all the lights are up on the six thirty house, and then I’ll go back and show you how Mr Brookes does it. All I’d say by way of a warning is that you need to remember that a magician is not someone who deceives, but someone who keeps his promise. Which is to deceive.
We learn the secrets of The Disappearing Lady and Reggie’s hidden part in all the proceedings, for, despite having uneven legs, he is small, dextrous and nimble. The secret is so simple, yet we fall for it every time! It’s Reggie and magician’s assistant Sandra who have to do all the hard work while Mr Brookes misdirects the audience.
Reggie notes that Sandra’s smile is rather strained today. Sure enough once the booking for that week is over, off she goes, a liaison with Teddy Brookes not enough to keep her in the act. Work for magicians is getting scarcer these days and at the end of the week not only are they without a booking to go to, but no girl to disappear.
Eventually Brookes gets them a spot down at Brighton, and he finds a new girl, Pam, in a pub. She seems to be a natural and has a force of personality that is brighter than most; Pam and Reggie get on like houses on fire from the off. Their friendship is put under strain however when Pam takes up with Mr Brookes – it seems to be expected of his assistants.
When Mr Brookes gets an extension to their booking to appear in the theatre’s Coronation Special, he decides to upgrade the act – a few changes and a new costume for Pam, to make it more Royal.
Once again, Bartlett subtly raises the tension as we go through the novel. Mr Brookes becomes more strained as the pages go, and questions are raised as to his intentions towards his assistants. He’s more than a little menacing, and Pam is obviously more than just a tart with a heart – what’s in it for her?
As for Reggie, well he’s a sweetheart, full of yearning, wishing he had the courage to approach the dark-haired young man he sees working at a restaurant.
He wanted to know when one thing was finally going to lead to another, and he was going to actually spend a whole night with someone – spend the night with someone special, as his mother always put it. He wanted to know when he was going to kiss the same person goodnight when the lights went out and then hello again the next morning when the sun came up. He wanted to know how he was ever going to make this happen.
The backstage world of the theatre in the 1950s, the dingy theatrical digs and Brighton’s hidden backstreet gay scene, together with the pressure to keep one’s position on the Variety bill come to life vividly. They contrast so well with the slightly old-fashioned veneer of fading gloss and the absolute professionalism of all involved once the curtain goes up – the show must go on. (Please forgive me for using that cliché, but it’s true!)
Once again, Bartlett’s subtle characterisation and attention to detail entrances us and like the magician pulls us into this fascinating world in a compelling drama that you hope will keep surprising you. We feel part of the conspiracy, yet we have no idea what is going to happen. It did surprise me, and I loved it.
Will Reggie find love? What will happen to Teddy and Pam? Will the revamped act be alright on the night? All will be revealed – or are we being misdirected?
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors and would love Britain’s Got Talent to put a magician through to the final for once.
Neil Bartlett, The Disappearance Boy (Bloomsbury Circus, London, July 2014) 978-1408850442, hardback, 282 pages.
* * * Giveaway – This is now closed * * *
The winner of our giveaway was Phillip Edwards – we’ll be in touch!