Slight of Hand

This is my review of The Prestige by Christopher Priest.

The term "prestige" refers to the product of a magic trick – the rabbit pulled out of a hat.

"The Prestige" is the tale of a feud between two rival magicians in the late Victorian age, the working class Borden who makes good use of his skills as a cabinetmaker to conceal people during tricks, and the aristocratic Angier, forced by the poverty of being a younger son to make a living out of a hobby. Told largely through extracts from their journals, starting with Borden's viewpoint, this makes for a clunkily plotted read. Many incidents are reported, which detracts from the drama, and the tone is often stilted, although this may be an attempt to adopt a suitably Victorian style. At any rate, the characters come across as rather wooden.

Borden's prize act is "The Transported Man", for which the obsessive desire to work out an explanation drives Angier to distraction. The only possible solution seems to be that Borden has a double, but there is no evidence for this. In his desire to outdo Borden, Angier is driven to devise a transportation trick of his own, making use of the new power of electricity to move himself instantly from one place to another, although the process gives rise to a certain persistent problem… I was interested to learn that the electrical engineer Tesla really existed and had a laboratory at Colorado Springs, with a contraption called a "magnifying transmitter" which emitted arcs of electricity 7 metres in length. However, I share the disappointment of readers who prefer a story of magic where the suspense lies in working out how it is done, rather than one which relies on science fiction to create effects. This raises a real problem in reviewing the book fairly, since scifi is by its nature generally implausible. You just have to like it (which I don't) or judge it for its originality. On this count, the book scores quite highly, but it would have worked better with more skilful development of the plot.

I agree with those who think that the modern storyline of the magicians' descendants, wrapped round the basic plot, proves to be a further twist too far. This may be why it has been dropped totally in the film version of the book, which I happened to see a few years ago before reading "The Prestige" for a book group. I also think the film version works better because the visual recreation of the various tricks and acts of sabotage is obviously more entertaining than a series of descriptions. Interestingly, I enjoyed the film right up to the end when the multiple cloning of men and black cats by electrical transmission seems too ludicrous. This particular twist is not in the book.

Although I would say that the story works better as a film, you could argue that the book version of "The Prestige" has two advantages. It includes analyses of what motivates magicians and of the nature of magic, and insights on the relationships between the main characters which are lacking in the film. These combine to make it more thought-provoking, yet this quality sits uneasily with an ending which could be said to "go off the rails".

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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