Rosie Thomas’ novel, The Illusionists is one that I bought a few years ago after reading The Night Circus and rewatching a few of my favorite magic/illusion movies (The Illusionist, Scoop, The Prestige except for the last few scenes, etc.). I don’t remember now why I had put off reading it but it has inspired me to do another rewatch. The Illusionists captures more than just the wonder of the illusions the novel’s central troupe performs, it captures the ways that reality and illusion play into each of their lives as well.
Devil Wix is a struggling magician looking for more regular work than what he gets performing in the streets. He stumbles across a dwarf by the name of Carlo Boldoni who has a knack for devising illusions as well as gift for performing them. The two prove to be effective collaborators as their competitive sides drive them both forward. Nabbing a recurring act on the stage of the newly reopened Palmyra Theater, their biggest obstacle to success becomes the theater’s owner, a greedy man called Jacko Grady who knows nothing about marketing or talent. The pair aren’t the only ones dissatisfied with Grady and soon the performers and their friends outside the theater begin to form an alliance and finally a company of their own. Heinrich is an engineer who builds automatons but is socially awkward and has difficulty grasping the line between real and machine, the controllable and those with free will. Jasper knows Devil’s real name and history having grown up together as boys, but his waxwork models prove valuable to Boldoni and Wix’s illusions. Eliza becomes a focal point for most of the men in the company as she challenges so many expectations of women during the time in which the novel is set but knowing what she needs from a relationship in order to maintain her sense of independence, she cannot make them all happy though she aims to keep them balanced without losing herself.
Broken into three parts, the arcs for each part of the novel are distinct as they chronicle the formation and rise of the central company, the crest of their success, and their inevitable decline. With time jumps between the arcs, each presents itself almost as a new story though there are elements that carry through each. It can make for interesting pacing as each arc takes a little time to build towards its climax (and some are more rewarding than others in their execution). The secondary characters are nowhere near as developed as the primary characters and it leaves some sections of the plot a little weaker as they’re called upon to carry more weight—characters such as Jakey or even Heinrich and Jasper.
The strength of the novel lies in the tensions between the characters—both each other and with their pasts. Devil Wix is not the only one who has changed his name and adopted a persona that functions both on and off stage. He is haunted by things he did in his youth until he can learn to see through the illusion of his guilt—an achievement that doesn’t work all of the time. Carlo is haunted by his size and the limitations of being a dwarf in a world too big for him; on the stage his size doesn’t matter—becomes an asset even—but he longs for the company and affection of people like him, a companionship he hasn’t had since losing his sister and her husband—both dwarfs themselves. Eliza proves to be the one most capable of sympathizing having to make her way as a woman in a man’s world, constantly needing to assert her independence and being doubted in her suspicions and fears. At the same time she dreads an existence like her housewife sister, there are elements of it that she longs for—someone to share her life with and have a family with—but finding someone who can respect her independence and her drive to be on stage is difficult as so many of the men in her life want nothing more than for her to comply with societal norms or to control her.
The Illusionists proves to be an intriguing peek behind the curtain of a performing troupe that, like the demand for their illusions, evolves with time and as circumstances change.