Genre: Historical fiction, Literary fiction
Narrative Style: Non-chronological, third person from multiple viewpoints.
Synopsis: Ronnie, Evie and Jack are all performers and in the summer of 1959, they are all in Brighton performing on the pier. Ronnie is a magician, Evie is his assistant and also his fiancee. Jack is the compere and an all round entertainer. That is, until, at the end of the season when Ronnie disappears after a spectacular trick, never to be seen again.
Time on Shelf: This was a special offer Kindle purchase, probably at the end of last year so not very long.
I liked the start of this book more than the end. It begins with Jack Robinson standing in the wings, wondering how he was ever going to make himself overcome his ‘panic, vertigo, revulsion’ and actually get on to the stage. It is an interesting opening, capturing Jack’s frame of mind as he is distracted by the thought of his mother who had pushed him onto the stage, his mind moving through memories before Swift returns us to the present, explaining how Jack came to be there, waiting in the wings. I was immediately taken.
It felt like the focus was to be on Jack and his life, with Ronnie and Evie as secondary characters but the narrative suddenly jumps to telling Ronnie’s story, particularly focusing on his time as a child. We learn that his father, a sailor, brings him back a parrot but when he goes back to sea, his mother sells it without regard for Ronnie’s feelings. She tells Ronnie’s father that it flew away. When the war starts Ronnie is evacuated to Oxford. This section was well written and successfully evoked the era. Ronnie is sent away from working class London to what he views as a grand house in Oxford to stay with a family who genuinely love him and look after him. His mother is distant and seemingly unemotional. His father is an intermittent presence but Eric and Penny have been unable to have children of their own and so are desperate for someone to love. Eric passes on to Ronnie his love of magic.
It is when the narrative switches to Evie and the present day that I found my attention starting to wane. Evie is seventy five in the present day, Jack having died the year before. They were married and he had found fame as an actor of some renown and Evie was the manager of his production company. At the heart of this was Ronnie’s disappearance. Evie had originally been engaged to Ronnie but, inevitably, Evie was drawn to Jack who was a bit of a ladies’ man. And it does seem inevitable. There is nothing unusual or exciting about this part of the narrative. Swift captures her grief at Jack’s death well but I didn’t find her narrative as interesting as either of the men.
The action switches now between Evie’s day in the present and action in the past as she remembers the last weeks with Ronnie, the death of his mother and the first time that she sleeps with Jack. It was fairly obvious what would happen when Ronnie went to see his mother. It was predictable especially given that we know about Ronnie’s disappearance from the beginning.
I felt sorry for Ronnie but we don’t get to know how he feels except at one remove. Evie hypothesises that he knew straight away what she had done and as he disappears not long after then it is may be true. As Evie is the only one left alive, she gets to give the definitive version of these final events.
The disappearance itself is quite dramatic. Swift makes us wait to see what the great new trick was that Ronnie had planned. It may be that he had already decided to disappear and it actually had nothing to do with Evie’s guilt for sleeping with Jack. He has been performing a trick where he makes a rainbow appear across the stage and then a white dove would fly out. On the last night, it is a parrot that appears from under the rainbow and then Ronnie himself disappears.
After that, the actual end of the book felt a little anti-climactic. Evie returns from having lunch with Jack’s agent. She is tired and she goes to bed, thinking that she felt the familiar warmth of Jack’s body beside her. There is something in Swift’s prose that suggests she may be about to die as well. Obviously, I suppose, we never discover the whereabouts of Ronnie who like his parrot, might be dead or alive. It wasn’t that that made the ending feel a little flat. It felt a little like Swift had run out of steam and he couldn’t imagine a life for Evie without either of the men. That was disappointing because she had seemed quite a independent character earlier on.
So a good start but a disappointing end. Swift’s prose meant that this was readable throughout but I felt the plot let it down.