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Christopher Priest: The Prestige

Another first class work from Christopher Priest. It starts with the story of a contemporary journalist who may be called Andrew Westley but may also be called Nicholas Borden. Westley was adopted when young but he feels he has a twin brother, though has never been able to prove this. He is summoned to a house in Derbyshire, ostensibly on a journalistic assignment though that turns out to be a red herring. The owner of the house tells him, primarily through the writings of the two main parties, of the rivalries between her great-grandfather and his (biological) one. Most of the book consists of the writings of the two protagonists, both of whom were successful magicians but also bitter rivals. Both try – in some cases successfully – to harm the career of the other. This, in itself, would have made an excellent story, particularly as Priest tells the story of one straight through, engaging our sympathy with him and making us feel that the other is a charlatan and then telling the other’s story and giving us the same story from a different standpoint. The rivalry and how one outdoes the other, though at great personal cost, in perfecting the great trick of apparently instantaneous transportation is riveting.

Priest is concerned, however, with other things, particularly the duality of personalities. This is not the simplistic good versus evil duality à la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but a more complex view, where we see that everyone – in this case the three protagonists – is made up of two parts which are dependent but can be separated, though to the detriment of the whole. In fact, the story – though we may not realise it for some time – is about the harmful effect of the separation of the two sides. Priest takes it beyond the obvious twin theme, adding in what might be called Victorian decloning and marriage, as two of the representation of the duality theme. This is not the only theme Priest exploits – the inevitable what-is-real-what-is-not, which is almost a given with magicians, and the mad scientist who might be onto something (in this case, the very real Nikola Tesla) are just two of the others – but it is the duality theme, cleverly concealed by Priest that makes this book so interesting.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Touchstone