cover image The Last Magician

The Last Magician

Janette Turner Hospital. Henry Holt & Company, $23 (309pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-2097-7

In this mesmerizing study of the effects of a dark secret on the people who must live with it, the author of Charades proves herself a magician with words and narrative structure. Moreover, she seems to have an artificer's skill for re-creating her fictional approach each time out: each of her novels is different from the others in theme, tone and method. The constants are her impeccable, sensuous prose and her fiercely intelligent imagination. Set in the rain forest near Brisbane and in the city of Sydney, in Hospital's native Australia, the narrative slowly unwinds in elliptical scenes and oblique references, like photos in which the subject is blurred but discernible, and will gradually come into focus. The ``last magician'' is Charlie Chang, a photographer and filmmaker who devotes himself to unraveling the puzzle at the heart of this tale. Twenty-five years ago, he was one of four children who witnessed the death of a fifth. One of them caused the event; blandly amoral, narcissistic and seemingly without guilt, Robinson Gray is now a famous judge, ``Australia's golden boy.'' Charlie and the others--one woman named Catherine and another named Cat--remain emotionally maimed. The judge's son and the woman who loves him become catalysts in reopening the drama and are sucked into the whirlpool of evil it again sets in motion. Hospital enriches her story with allusions ranging from Virgil and Dante to James Joyce and Christina Stead. She offers crackling social commentary as she contrasts the lives of the homeless squatters (who live underneath Sydney's streets in a warren of caverns and tunnels called ``the quarry'') with the cream of Sydney's society folk. Her characters' observations about truth and illusion, about memory and precognition and the nature of moral responsibility, are provocative and insightful. Most important, this novel is an example of the storyteller's magical art. 25,000 first printing; major ad/promo; author tour. (Sept.) .