Neil Bartlett weaves some underplayed magic into The Disappearance Boy, his fourth book.
It makes his personal inclinations clear — having been a theatre director for a decade, as well as a writer in the homosexual genre, he works his novel around characters who seem unique and both upfront and backstage. However, while the storyline is absorbing, there are gaps in the characterisation as well as narrative, which deprive the reader of emotional connect with the story.
The hero, Reggie Rainbow, is an oddball — a queer, polio-afflicted orphan, who has suffered a lot of knocks, yet comes across as a 23-year-old with a heart of gold.
The complete antithesis of Reggie is Ted Brookes, the cloak-and-dagger showman, who depends on thrust and parry to get his way. And finally, Pamela is the visible half of Reggie’s disappearing act, as well as one more victim of Brookes’s use-and-throw approach to small-cash characters. Hence, the story of good vs evil is like a morality tale, in which the “good” triumphs.
The novel is built mainly around these three characters, with a narrow narrative. Other players in the tale are extras, while the sea of people referred to in the book are as faceless as in real life.
The novel is set in 1953 in the seaside town of Brighton, where Brookes wins a slot at Brighton Grand just before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Reggie, the low-paid employee in the show of the ruthless illusionist, Ted, helps him to camouflage and make women in the magic act ‘disappear’. He is part of the travelling show, and forges a fairly deep relationship with the new and glamorous assistant, Pamela. He also stumbles into places where homosexuals hang out to meet the men they want to fall for.
The novel, thus, works on several levels. There is a rather thriller-like main story with its messy events and devious designs, and then an emotional underlying drama of forgotten pasts and unclear futures.
Like the magic trick of the disappearing lady, Bartlett calls attention to one type of event in the tale that would draw the reader from the real point of the plot.
The reader is in suspense till the end and is surprised at the manner in which the disappearance works, making Brookes vanish from his longed-for success. Hence, the author banks upon building up intrigues within intrigues in order to create his masterly illusion.
Some of the narrative from the theatre director seems to exhibit special histrionics, with touches of vaudeville and larger-than-life characterisations. For instance, Reggie spends a lot of time “talking” to his mother in her grave, which surely evokes a completely dramatic mood in the book and in the reader. The tinsel glitter of theatre and the tawdry make-up of the actors also drive the story.
The author becomes a sudden narrator when he addresses his readers directly at points where there is a twist in the tale, and he attempts to draw the reader into an interesting secret, which anyone would savour. However, while the narrator gets close to the reader, it makes the tale and characters a bit remote.
That is the way it works, especially in the first part of the book, where there are more detached descriptions by the author rather than a clean personal introduction, identification or conversations.
The language maintains a controlled tone, underplayed humour and stiff-upper-lip feel of a British novel set in the 50s. At many places, the reader is acquainted with the characters through third-person descriptions.
The author’s detached comments, exposes and critiques make us understand them clearly, but only as set characters through second-person narratives rather than through emotional bonding. For instance: “The fourth time he makes his entrance he seems satisfied, and the frown that was beginning to collect on his forehead is ironed away.”
Some of the characters stand out. The lines that delineate them are rounded and clear, even Dickensian in some of their conceits. But they remain real and life-like, not farcical or burlesque. For instance, Brookes is described as: “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…”
Yet, among the three characters, Reggie, the hero, is the least clear or sharp, while the other two stand out, mainly because of the touch of realism in their characterisation. The inclination of the writer seems clear — the homosexual hero is his favourite. Still, the work on Reggie is the fuzziest, and he sometimes does not seem convincing in his presentation of the “good” hero.
On the whole, though, the book is an absorbing read. It ends on a happy note that makes the reader as satisfied as the actors, as Reggie and Pamela disappear into their lives, while Brookes disappears from his.