The Prestige by Christopher Priest. Book review

The Prestige
by Christopher Priest. Gollancz (2011) ‘7.99

Reviewed by John Howard

Christopher Priest has never been a prolific novelist. The Prestige first appeared in 1995, and there have only been two novels since. But instead of fiction by the cubic metre, Priest gives books that pay their way and don’t make a fuss. They are painstaking, intriguing, intricate, thoughtful novels whose lucidity can be deceptive. Priest’s distinctive fictional stock-in-trade over the years has centred on unreliable narratives of doubles and twins, their realities and illusions, and the often indistinct (and hazardous) boundaries between them. The Prestige is no exception. Typically in a Christopher Priest novel, as here, the word ‘prestige’ has multiple meanings. Some are explained, some become clearer more gradually. This unfolding process is another consistent delight.

In late Victorian England Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier are top celebrities in the world of stage magic. But as well as being rivals they actively detest each other. Not content with only developing and improving his own act, each spends time and energy on revealing the working behind the other’s act, spoiling the effect for the audience and potentially ruining his career. The illusionists’ feud escalates as their acts become more inexplicable and miraculous. They become more scientific, experimental ‘ and much more dangerous. Differences between an illusion and a genuine process or transaction steadily erode. The story is told through the diaries forming the bulk of the novel, which are framed within a modern setting when they come to be read. No matter what was ‘real’ once, the lingering effect of Borden and Angier’s feud, the costs of crossing the boundaries, still make themselves felt a century later ‘ and the prestige. All this and the real wonders of Nikola Tesla too’ The Prestige is certainly at home in the prestigious SF Masterworks series. You can’t lose ‘ and that’s no illusion!