Masters of Illusions: A Novel of the Connecticut Circus Fire

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, Author Grand Central Publishing $28 (224p) ISBN 978-0-446-51806-2
The fire that roared through the Barnum & Bailey Circus tent in Hartford, Conn., on July 6, 1944, took 169 lives and injured 2000 others. Tirone-Smith ( The Book of Phoebe ) makes that conflagration central to her new novel, a skillfully controlled, moving psychological exploration of secrets, traumas and family relationships. The narrator, Margie Potter, was only six months old on the day her mother took her to the circus; her mother perished, and Maggie herself bears livid scars on her back. Having spent her youth repressing her memories and burying herself in books, Margie marries an intense fireman, Charlie O'Neill, who is singularly obsessed with the fire and determined to find the arsonist whom he is certain set the blaze. Over the years Charlie becomes more and more compulsive about tracking down leads, emotionally distancing himself from Margie and their feisty daughter Martha. The clue to his obsessive dedication, and to the arsonist's identity, comes only when Margie begins to acknowledge her own complicity in his monomania. In matching her narrative tone with her heroine's lower-middle class diction and deliberate emotional restraint, the author risks a slow beginning in order to build suspense in subtle increments. She keeps the prose cool and spare, so that when harrowing details and jolting surprises gradually occur, the effect is potent. The final epiphany opens the narrative in an extraordinary way, forcing the reader to reassess everything. This daringly imagined novel adds a new dimension to an already impressive body of work. (May)
Reviewed on: 05/30/1994
Release date: 06/01/1994
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