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Smoke & Mirrors

By Barry Jonsberg

Reviewed by Mia Macrossan

Barry Jonsberg is the much awarded author of the 2019  novel, My Life As An Alphabet, which was made into a film. He also wrote A Little Spark, reviewed in StoryLinks.
Here he is in familiar territory, a troubled teenager trying to cope with a life full of challenges at home and school. Grace has taken refuge in becoming an expert in magic, prestidigitation is her particular skill. ‘I do magic‘ she says, ‘tricks are for amateurs‘. This helps her survive ‘looking after a dying grandmother, put up with a lying, thieving uncle and pick up the pieces left by an alcoholic mother’ ,p 167. Did I mention that her father and brother died in an accident, the effects of which Grace is still processing, or not, with a therapist.
She has no friends at school and when tall attractive Simon offers to help her make some money with her magic tricks she is intrigued. Money is always useful as there isn’t much around at home. Simon publishes ‘The Amazing Grace’ doing magic on social media which encourages Grace to try for a dangerous magic trick made famous by the great magician and escape artist Houdini.
Jonsberg takes us on Grace’s journey, increasing the emotional intensity and tension as the story progresses. Her grandmother is terminally ill and asks for voluntary assisted dying; her mother goes on a alcoholic binge and Grace has to pick her up from the police station; her uncle has taken a large sum of money from his mother’s bank account; the ghost of her brother keeps appearing,  she has nightmares of drowning and school isn’t special either.
This could be a tale of unrelieved misery if it wasn’t for Jonsberg careful control and his use of mordant humour. The story unfolds from Grace’s point of view throughout and she is relentlessly negative but very funny about almost everything except her grandmother. Grace’s bleak outlook on life, ‘ most human interaction is based on lies‘ p 209, is contrasted with the joy and satisfaction of her magic. It is what gives her the strength and resilience to survive, to overcome her grief and accept change, to see people in a more favourable, less judgmental light.
Throughout the novel there are references to how ‘words are magic’. Grace has her patter, the ‘smoke and mirrors’ that distracts the punters when she doing a magic trick. There are also the words spoken by her family, especially her grandmother, which are not always absolutely true in every sense, although resonating on a spectrum that Grace partially understands. Jonsberg is doing his own magic trick here, telling a complex story where not everything is as it seems, a literary ‘smoke and mirrors’ making you believe that something is true, when it is not.
This humane story with its sympathetic central character, its devious plot and sharp humour will gain Jonsberg new readers and reward his many faithful fans.
A & U Children 2023 
1942 Amsterdam Ave NY (212) 862-3680

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