In post–World War II England, an orphan named Reggie Rainbow struggles to make ends meet as a “disappearance boy”—the invisible helper of a struggling illusionist.
Reggie is first introduced as an orphan standing nearly naked in rags on a railroad track, hoping that if he dies he will be reunited with his dead mother, who he imagines is an angel. Instead, he’s whisked off the rails; the next time we see him after this dramatic, Dickensian setup, he’s a young adult on his way to work. His unusual job is to hide in small contraptions to help make the illusionist Mr. Brookes’ female assistant successfully vanish from the audience’s view. Unfortunately, London’s interest in magic shows has subsided, and Mr. Brookes fires his female assistants with regularity. There are long scenes describing precisely how the tricks work (or fail to work), and instead of being revealing, they feel procedural and tedious. The narrator rather unsuccessfully addresses the reader in the second person, as if we are audience members watching the show: “As you can see, the Lady is indeed missing.” This creates a flatness in the prose, removing elements of surprise from the story. Reggie looks like he might be out of work, but things turn around, and Mr. Brookes picks up a gig in a new place, Brighton, and a new, more self-assured female assistant named Pamela, who takes the job thinking, “How hard can being made to disappear be?” Unfortunately, Pamela, like those who preceded her, finds herself under Mr. Brookes’ thumb. It’s Reggie’s friendship that saves the day when he uses a bit of magic he’s learned to turn the tables on his unkind employer.
This all feels familiar from various Dickens stories—the orphan, the orphan’s patrons, the illusions, the unfriendly businessmen, the saviors—and the 1950s setting isn’t enough to refresh the great expectations.