In this literary novel set in England, a teenager learns startling revelations about people close to her.
In the sultry London of July 1969, Jane Hareman is 16 years old, making her first steps into maturity as humanity is taking its first steps on the moon. She has a comfortable relationship with her best friend, Karl Schmidt-Smith, a talented pianist and composer a year older than Jane. But then he says the words that turn her “whole world upside down: ‘Let’s go upstairs to my room.’ ” Jane, an intelligent girl who enjoys reading Kafka and philosophy, isn’t sure how she feels about that. She also has other things on her mind, such as the nearly 10-year anniversary of her mother’s death. Jane’s household consists of her father, George, once a magician known as “Mr. Magikoo,” and his girlfriend, Mia-Mia. A frequent visitor is George’s sister, Ada, a second mother to Jane. After the accidental onstage electrocution of his wife, for which neither Jane nor Ada has ever forgiven him, George eventually retired from performing to run his magic shop—but not before roping young Jane into appearing as “Little Magik Matchstick” in a terrifying theatrical illusion. Ada put a stop to this when Jane was 8, but the teen adds the experience to the list of things she can’t forgive. Returning home after watching the moonwalk on TV with Karl and his mother (who thinks it’s a hoax), Jane finds her world upended again when Mia-Mia reveals several important truths about herself, George, and Ada. Enlightened, Jane can now forgive her father, telling him: “I understand now that everything, even Little Magik Matchstick, was part of the madness of grief.” But Jane’s rapprochement and her understanding of the truth are soon upended yet again through betrayal and tragedy. Helped somewhat by the humanity of a few people in her world, Jane must find strength in turmoil.
As in his previous novels, Cacoyannis (Polk, Harper & Who, 2017, etc.) again shows his perceptive understanding of the many layered elements that make up the psyche. Jane’s view of Karl, for example, undergoes seismic shifts after he attempts rape. Is he unforgivable? Is it his mother’s fault? Does his sublime piano composition in her honor excuse what he tried to do? As Jane yields “to what I felt like doing today, already one absolute certainty had sweepingly overridden another.” The uses, attractions, and dangers of lies, fictions, magic, and illusion run through the story in thought-provoking ways (“One of Mr. Magikoo’s best-known tricks involved pulling a rabbit out of two different hats…by sleight of hand the mutilation of the rabbit was concealed”). Telling the truth can have dire consequences; sometimes lying is necessary to protect the innocent; magic’s enthrallment depends on the audience’s feelings of horror. Cacoyannis’ characters, even minor ones, are equally complex and multifaceted, with histories that he brings out skillfully. Jane in particular is an appealing young person with her honesty, cleverness, openness, and desire to do the right thing. Flashes of absurdist dark humor provide a welcome note in the book’s dramatic events.
A well-written, richly complicated, and deeply engaging coming-of-age tale.