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The Magician’s Wife

by Brian Moore

You would never describe Brian Moore as a flashy writer, and this is a good thing. His style is reserved and observant, his themes large and universal, but exquisitely localized: this is someone who pulls the reader into the detail of place and person. It is slow, this process of revelation, but what it can show is enormous.
In The Magician’s Wife, Moore’s 19th novel, he charts the familiar, yet inexhaustible, terrain of politics, faith, and betrayal. The setting is 1856. Henri Lambert is a renowned magician, who has, more or less, abandoned the stage for a reclusive life of science: he spends days in his workroom perfecting mechanical objects, marionettes who can function as servants, for instance. This is a disconcerting and unfulfilling life for his young wife, Emmeline, but when they have the opportunity to attend a week-long serie, hosted by Louis Napoleon, she balks. She is not ready, she thinks, for a bigger life.
Lambert is persuaded by the gilded flattery of Louis Napoleon and a Colonel Deniau (both of whom ply their respective charms on the Madame) to participate in a top-secret mission to Algeria, which at this time is only partially under French control. A local marabou could incite a holy war against France by virtue of his simple trickery: what better foil than a man who can levitate children?
The story, of course, is Emmeline’s. Despite her worries about wardrobe and manners, she is seduced by the attention. She dreams of an affair with Deniau. Louis Napoleon feels her up. She is amused, confused, wooable.
This said, she never entirely loses her sense of self and of what she feels is right. She finds the colonialism she perpetuates disgusting and is entranced by Islam. In the desert, she is scorched to the core, fired to commit a betrayal of husband and country.
Moore tell this story simply and soberly. It is obvious he is drawing on ancient and ongoing parallels: conquest versus submission, east versus west, complex society versus the allegedly uncivilized, loyalty versus unfaithfulness. It not new, but it is, in this master magician’s hands, worth reading.