One of the central themes in The Last Magician is that the relationship between a photograph and its viewer is that of a seduction; the image beckons and entices, drawing the viewer in with the promise of truth, but – by its very nature – frames only a small portion of what is, and excludes infinitely more than it reveals. I was fascinated by the cover photo, which is cropped to show only the mouth, chin, and neck of a woman, her skin so white it shades into green at the edges. The open mouth is painted a lurid red, and the lipstick is drawn outside the natural line of the lips into an asymmetrical, cartoonishly exaggerated snarl. It’s both grosteque and oddly compelling, and my interest in the photo was what ultimately tipped the scales in favor of reading the book.
The story is told by Lucy, a posh Australian girl gone wild, slumming as a prostitute on the fringes of Sydney’s notorious “quarry” – an underground warren of tunnels, sewers, and basements teeming with criminals and outcasts. The manager of the restaurant/brothel where she works, Charlie, is also a photographer, and asks to take pictures of her; Lucy unintentionally strikes a pose that startles Charlie into revealing a scrap of information about Cat, a woman he once loved. Soon after, a young man named Gabriel is hired to tend bar, and it turns out that Gabriel is the son of a boyhood friend of Charlie’s. Gabriel, too, is obsessed with Cat, although he only saw her once, as a child. The two men join up on a tireless hunt for the elusive woman, venturing further and further into the underworld of the quarry to find Cat. Years later, battered with hard-won knowledge, Lucy tells their story: the story of four children involved in the tragic death of a fifth, a death that binds them tightly if unwillingly together, a death for which they will pay – each in their own way – for the rest of their lives.
Hospital employs narrative devices like they’re going out of style. Lucy is the narrator, but her actual account is in third-person-limited-omniscient, from her point of view. She breaks off frequently to directly address the reader about how she’s telling the story, or to wax melodramatic about her own mysterious and complicated self, but these ill-timed intermissions interrupt the flow of the narrative and simply make the reader impatient to get on with things.
Alas, there are 127 pages of context-free meetings with unintroduced characters, who clearly have plenty of history that we’re not privy to; sadly, they’re too busy with significant looks and cryptically abrupt comments alluding to their shared pasts to help us out. Not until Book Two do we begin to learn about the central accident, decades past, that anchors the main characters, but the second and third acts of the novel still suffer from frantic jumps through time, flashing forward and back with disquieting randomness. The dialogue feels unnatural and forced, as characters spout off chunks of Milton from memory (finishing each other’s quotations, even) and utter pompous philosophical musings to each other. Fortunately, despite Lucy’s repeated threats to end the story here, or here, she eventually chooses an appropriate moment, offering a resolution that, though it does not answer all the questions, answers enough of them.
It’s a pity that Lucy is the narrator, because she is in many ways the least interesting character (and, incidentally, peripheral to the real story). The true protagonist is Cat, the alluring and charismatic woman whose seductive powers become her downfall; the other characters are self-confessed satellites in her orbit. Charlie is a sympathetic character, suffering torment from racist bullies for his Chinese heritage despite being a native-born Australian. An outsider for life, Charlie takes refuge in silence and observation, using his camera to seek truth. Robinson Gray, despite being wholly unlikeable, is deeply interesting: a roiling stew of pride, entitlement, narcisissm, and cruelty, he spends his entire life constructing and maintaining the illusion of himself as a superior being, worthy of universal admiration. As the book’s villain – not for his role in the accident, but his ongoing efforts to humiliate and degrade others with his petty abuse – Robinson becomes the living embodiment of the stunted, misshapen paths the characters’ lives have taken.
There’s a good story here, but Hospital seems to be identifying too much with her titular magician, self-consciously using narrative gimmicks as misdirection and sleight-of-hand. The effect is not so much impressive as chaotic and confusing, and the ambiguous resolution is similarly unsatisfying. The Last Magician would have been much better if the author hadn’t reached quite so deeply into her bag of tricks.