'Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that... there are many kinds of magic, after all.' The Night Circus
Having read Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett last year (and re-read it many times since then because Mr. F and his Beauty haunt me to this day), I knew it wouldn't be my last book by this writer. Choosing to read The Disappearance Boy was easy, a no-brainer, but writing about what I loved about it and why ... not so much. There are, indeed, 'many kinds of magic', and Mr. Bartlett certainly seems to be a master at conjuring characters like Mr. F in Skin Lane and, now, Reggie Rainbow in The Disappearance Boy.
One of the things I loved is how the narrator is an ever present voice in my ear yet remains unseen and unknown, not annoying or distracting, but confiding and inviting me to look here or there, the tone resembling one of amiable conversation, almost as if we've just sat down at a table in a cafe and he's telling me the story of Reggie, a 23-year old young man who makes the 'Missing Lady' trick for Mr. Edward 'Teddy' Brookes, Esq., act appear as if it is indeed magic. This voice, similar yet different to the one used so eloquently and expertly in Skin Lane, serves up its own bit of trickery at a decisive moment in the book.
A big part of the magic is Reggie Rainbow, the 'disappearance boy' in this act, who's about as alone and lonely as a body can be: stricken by polio at age two, an orphan raised in 'The Home for Poor Brave Things', no parents, no friends, no lovers. Because of the polio, 'our Reg' doesn't blend in easily: barely 5'3", a pronounced limp, a built-up shoe on his left foot to compensate for a leg that's several inches shorter than the right, but with 'disproportionately strong shoulders', and his 'sharp-featured, bright-eyed, and strikingly dark-skinned' face. That Reg is gay in 1953 when that was a criminal offense isolates him even further.
It would be easy to see Reggie as nothing more than this, a young man with a limp, the built-up shoe, his short stature, his endearingly odd 'little tooth-hiding grin.' But that would be falling for a bit of misdirection and you'd miss Reg's vulnerability, his resiliency, his total lack of self-pity, his head-down-get-on-with-it attitude, best exemplified as he lurches and hurls himself through busy London streets on his way to his job behind the scenes at the Wimbledon Broadway:
'When he's up to speed, this young man can thread himself through a thickening lunchtime crowd as surely as a darning needle can pierce silk.' (14)
I love Reggie. I love his determination, his secret love of sweets, his self containment, his 'cheerfully and filthily tight-lipped way with words', the fiercely determined way he carries his slight body as though it were a 'badly wrapped parcel' to be delivered on time 'and without troubling anyone else for directions', the way he wraps up his odd body in a 'two-sizes-too-large Harris tweed jacket', and his habitual two taps (for luck?) on the penknife and ration book (for sweets) secreted away in the breast pocket of that jacket. If Mr. Freeman in Skin Lane was a lament for the life unlived, 'our Reg' is a celebration for the life that will be lived, his voyage of self discovery beginning with a search for his origins, a mother he never knew, but more importantly a search for someone to love and to love him:
'He wanted to know when he was going to kiss the same person goodnight when the lights went out and then hello again the next morning when the sun came up. He wanted to know how he was ever going to make that happen.' (121)
In each town toured with Mr. Brookes, Reggie searches out a cemetery, adopts a particular grave with the date of death September 15, 1930 (his birthdate and the day Reggie's mother died), and visits every Sunday to 'talk' to his mother. It may sound weird or macabre, but I understood his need to connect with the person who gave birth to him in any way possible. Those conversations made me smile, chuckle, and at times tear up. I love that one of the first things Reg does while they're on tour is to visit the library in these towns, and his joy as he finds a good set of encyclopedias (his favorite is the Britannica).
'The books were ranged along the walls of a splendid old high-ceilinged room that was as full of quiet as it was of light, and - for a Saturday - it was gratifyingly empty of customers. Up on the end wall, under the clock, he could see straight away that they had exactly what he liked most, which was a proper shelf-full of encyclopedias.' (107)
Mr. Edward Brookes is Reggie's boss, a master of misdirection, who makes his beautiful young assistant 'disappear' twice nightly - 'three times on Thursday and Saturdays' - lately at the New Wimbledon but, as that narrator says:
'...you need to remember that a magician is not someone who deceives, but someone who keeps his promise. Which is to deceive.' (37)
Mr. Brookes, Teddy to his intimates, is handsome á la Café Royale style, elegant, debonair, 'the kind of man who looks like he smiles for a living.'
He is wearing white gloves with a single pearl button, and showing a full inch of starched cuff. His hair is carefully side-parted. His feet are accented in black patent, his trousers have a black ribbon side-stripe, and he's carrying a black top hat in his gloved right hand;' (16)
Sounds dashing, eh? Well, handsome is as handsome does. Take, for instance, his voice as he scolds his assistant during rehearsal:
'His voice, when it finally comes, is in lots of ways just like his face: handsome, clean-cut, and effortlessly threatening.'
(...)'Shall we try that move once more, Sandra?'
Of course, she doesn't reply.
'Just the once more...and without one iota of fucking feeling - if you wouldn't mind, my darling?' (23)
Mr. Brookes is 'every inch the gentleman, that was what they all said about Teddy Brookes, Esq.,' but it's a facade, just an illusion. The fact that he isn't at all what he appears to be a source of amusement to him. After all, if everyone is blind/stupid enough not to see what's obvious 'who was he to disillusion anybody?'
The real Teddy is an opportunist with an eye on the main chance, who never fails to exploit the next punter. And there's always another one. Like Sandra. Like Pamela. Like the woman from Tooting who can always 'be touched for a new pair of cuff links or a small cheque after they'd done the business.' But it's not just their hearts that are sometimes battered, bruised, and broken as Reg is well aware which makes Miss Pamela Rose's entrance into this tableaux complicated.
For the first time in his life, Reggie has a real friend. Pamela is beautiful, vivacious, lacking in artifice, an ability to make punishing rehearsals for the act enjoyable with her infectious laugh and innate sense of fun. Life sometimes knocks that smile off Pamela's face, but it always, always, returns. What Reggie admires most about Pamela is her self-sufficiency and, of course, the way she doesn't stare at his boot.
'The way she dressed, combined with that defiantly almost-bare face (just a lick of pale powder, a slash of dark red lipstick and invariably a cigarette) meant few people were surprised when she came straight out and told them the kinds of things that she mostly did for a living. She laughed often, and well - and not to impress. It was one of her trademark gestures, the ones her friends knew her by; shaking out her charm bracelet, rooting in that big red bag to see where her fags had got to this time and laughing, throwing back her head and tossing her unkempt hair out of her eyes.' (84)
Remember that narrator? The voice directing and misdirecting here or there, drawing attention to this or that? That voice shares the secret of the magic behind the scenes of Mr. Brookes' 'The Missing Lady' illusion. Reggie, Pam, and two stagehands are the reasons the magic works in 'The Missing Lady' act while Mr. Brookes is merely the vessel of misdirection so that they can carry out the mechanics of making a French maid, wrists and ankles bound in scarlet rope, securely locked in a cabinet, then appear unfettered on stage left, transformed into an elegant lady in a burgundy ballgown.
There is a special kind of magic in this tale. It's there in the loving details Mr. Bartlett gives about theater and stage life. It's in the wonderfully positive take-away of forgiveness and redemption. It's in the almost maternal love and affection Pam offers Reggie, showing him that because the ones you love leave, 'it doesn't mean you can stop trying.' What else but magic can explain how Mr. Bartlett creates a really nasty piece of work like Mr. Brookes yet leaves me feeling a bit of sympathy for the rat at the end? The Disappearance Boy is wonderful, tender, and destined to be on my 'Best Books (Read) In 2015.'