The Prestige: Showstopper

My journey with The Prestige fittingly began with a bit of magic trickery. “Oh, if you like the movie you have to read the book.” The bookseller explained. He went on, “One hundred percent worth it.” Then, with a flourish of legerdemain and misdirection, the book miraculously appeared in my bag while my fifteen dollars in cash (a budget set by my wife to limit my purchase to one book) materialized in the cash register. And so Christopher Priest’s novel of feuding stage magicians, famously developed for the silver screen in 2006, landed on my to-read pile. 

Normally I would disregard a book’s adaptation to any other media in my review. But like the lives of magicians Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, the film and the book versions of The Prestige remain inextricably intertwined. To keep things spoiler-free, here’s my warning: if you’ve seen the movie prior to picking up the novel, you will start ahead of the game. You’ll be privy to many, but crucially not all, of the secrets within. 

Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier each have a great-great-grandchild exploring the mysteries of their descendants. This delicately frames the narrative in a semi-modern day (the book was first published in 1995) mystery. These short segments bookend the crux of the novel: two large sections that outline each of the dueling magician’s lives in his own words. Alfred Borden sets the stage with beautiful descriptions of magic and how it’s performed. He tells of his feud with Rupert Angier and the many years over which it occurs. His story sways beautifully between personal growth and regression, and he drops details that form the outside borders of a puzzle. The first pieces are there, but there’s much left to fill in. 

After an interlude from the two descendants, Rupert Angier tells his side of the story through his diary. It covers 20 years of his life and often skips huge chunks of time, but the burden of completing the puzzle falls on his narrative. In this, author Christopher Priest delivers. 

I’ve stayed deliberately tight-lipped about the details of the plot for good reason: it’s juicy and immensely entertaining. Watching this story unfold reflects the wonder of a magic show. Laden with misdirection and twists, The Prestige reads as one fantastic illusion. Borden and Angier tell their respective sides of the tale with brash egos befitting career stage performers, and the first-person approach lends a certain weight of plausibility to their outlandish recountings. Priest’s deep characters and elegant prose go a long, long way in making this book a mystery worth unfurling.

The downside to Priest’s narrative approach is the pacing. Borden and Angier feel incredibly real throughout the novel, thanks to Priest’s prosaic heavy lifting. The downside? Reading through two entire lives told autobiographically feels slow. In a book where details are essential to the story, it’s easily forgivable. But it’s also worth noting that, even at 360 pages, it’s a slow read. What I’m really trying to say here is this: if you start The Prestige, you’re signing up for a slow burn. You have to be content to let the details simmer as you trek through the pages. If you can manage that, you’re in for a great payoff. 

And that’s where the book really shines. The ending, though crafted with similar reveals to the movie, takes things one step further. The final 30 pages offer a veritable treasure trove for prefer-the-book purists. There’s merit in the entire story, but the finale alone makes the journey worthwhile. Combining elements of horror and mystery, it packs a real mystical punch. The end of this novel-length magic trick is the exclamation mark on a beautifully written, sometimes rambling, entirely entertaining sentence. 

Rating: The Prestige – 8.5/10

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