Novel of the week

The Houdini Girl

Martyn Bedford <em>Viking, 307pp, £15.99</em>

"There is no more individual thing," a rabbi once wrote, "than a broken heart." What breaks Fletcher Brandon's heart is the news that Rosa, the woman with whom he has been conducting a passionate, occasionally tortured love affair, has died. What gives his grief its unique shape and this gripping novel its trajectory is the manner of her death.

Rosa and "Red" (as Brandon is known) met in a pub in Oxford: he out with his friends, she with hers. Through a mutual acquaintance, the groups merge and Brandon, a professional magician, finds himself opposite Rosa, a vivaciously handsome young Irish woman. Towards the end of the evening, he performs a trick and she is cajoled into playing the role of his glamorous assistant. Two hours later they are in bed. The next day Rosa moves into his flat. Brandon congratulates himself on his beguiling charm.

One day, a year later, moments after successfully performing the Zig-Zag Girl illusion (a mock mutilation in which two apparently scalpel-sharp blades are driven through a cabinet containing a woman), Brandon receives the grim news. Rosa has fallen from a train and is dead. But his distress is mingled with confusion. He has no idea what she was doing on a train leaving town when she was supposed to be at work. Three days later an anonymous parcel arrives containing a few of Rosa's belongings. A few days after that, Red disturbs a burglar who is ransacking his flat but has stolen nothing. He sets out to discover the truth about his lover - and soon uncovers a shocking past, as events take him from Oxford into the solipsistic depravities of the Amsterdam skin trade. As he sinks, he confirms the truth of Nietzsche's observation: "When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."

In many ways, The Houdini Girl is a terrific achievement, even though it has flaws: its resolution lacks the finesse of the early parts and there are rather too many digressions on the general theme that confidence tricksters and magicians are hewn from the same rough stone, an observation which seems to me to be both obvious and wrong (wrong because Bedford never really acknowledges that magic is primarily an entertainment, a frame performance with cues to signal beginnings and endings).

Bedford has a marvellous ear for the textures of conversation and in Fletcher Brandon has created a narrator of almost Faulknerian proportions: a raconteur, hedonist and shrewd anatomist of human weakness whose account of events is, at once, amusing, moving, naive and bawdy. His search for the reality of Rosa's death begins "as a commitment to memory, a preservation" but soon "assumes the nature of a quest" in which nothing is as it seems. Indeed, Brandon himself is a professional dissimulator, a performer who manipulates people's perception in order to earn his living.

On first reading, the novel seems to be a stylish thriller (imagine Paul Auster meets Lynda La Plante), its metaphysics spiced with plenty of smoking and boozing and sex. But when Brandon reaches the Netherlands, the mood darkens and the cleverness of Bedford's own brand of magic becomes clear. The book seems to promise a rollercoaster of fun, philandering and dangerous thugs, but very quickly we are drawn further into a terrifying world in which the casual titillation of the mating game gives way to brutality and violation.

Although the novel meditates effectively on the discrepancies between pleasure and happiness, on the corrosive effects of betrayal and on the degree to which one is entitled to know about another's past, it also offers a sharp rebuke to the macho culture of the new lad. In the last analysis, The Houdini Girl powerfully lays bare the exploitation and degradation of women in pornography for a readership that cannot be expecting it.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers