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Book Club Review: The Magician

RAD Book Club’s second read of the year was The Magician, the 2021, Folio Prize-winning historical novel by Colm Tóibín that reimagines the life of Thomas Mann.

Beginning in Munich in the late 1800s and following Mann through both World Wars, the rise and fall of the Nazis, and his subsequent life as a refugee in Switzerland and America, The Magician is an intimate portrait of a novelist and his family as they are rocked by historical change. Tóibín’s novel also offers an interesting re-examination of one of the 20th century’s most influential writers and public intellectuals and how his family, his sexuality, and his nationality all shaped his work.

The book provoked mixed feelings in the group. We all thought that the beginning was slow and badly paced, but some of us enjoyed the rest of the book immensely whilst for others, the book was generally a let-down and a struggle to finish. The lack of character interiority and action were both raised as issues, as were the sudden time jumps and the book’s overall narrative structure. As a book that explores the life of a writer who is so lost in his work that he becomes detached from the reality of his life, some of us found the book also detached, wooden, and a little cold at times. However, others in the group enjoyed the book’s subtlety and the way it mined Mann’s detachment for comedic effect, particularly with regards to his ignorance of his family’s affairs and the political atmosphere. We agreed that this approach suited a book whose main subject spent most of his life repressing his sexuality.

We all found the sections dealing with the Mann family fleeing Germany and settling in America to be the strongest in the book, as they offered an interesting and unconventional picture of the refugee experience. We also thought that the book’s examination of politics and the challenges of being a public intellectual figure was compelling, although some of us felt that this could have been explored more thoroughly.

Overall we all had very mixed feelings about the book. Our average rating of The Magician was 6.5/10.

Book Club will meet again on Thursday the 27th of July 2023 at 13:15-14:00 in the Library to discuss the book Yellowface by Asian-American novelist R. F. Kuang. A page-turning literary thriller and a thorny satire of the publishing industry, Yellowface explores topics such as race, social media, and identity politics with wit and a whip-smart sense of humour.