The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

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The Book of Illusions

Five words from the blurb: grief, silent, comedian, mystery, journey

I’ve owned a copy of this book for a while, but avoided reading it because of the plane crash mentioned in the blurb. I decided to pick it up straight after my holiday as this gave the greatest length of time to remove potentially disturbing images from my head before having to fly again! I’m pleased I made this decision as there were some scenes I’m glad I hadn’t read immediately prior to boarding a plane.

The Book of Illusions is a simple story about a professor whose wife and children are killed in a plane crash. Overcome by grief he begins to lose his grip on the world, but everything changes when he sees Hector Mann, a silent comedian, on television. The film is the first thing to make him smile in months and so he begins a quest to watch everything this man has ever produced. This strange obsession leads him to discover that Mann had a mysterious life and no-one knows what happened to him.

This story was strangely compelling. The pace was slow and there were large chunks where little happened, but the writing quality was so good that this didn’t really matter. There were a few unlikely coincidences, but these were necessary to make the story more interesting, so I was willing to forgive them.

The observations on grief were particularly accurate, giving the reader immense sympathy for the professor. My emotional connection to the characters was strong and I was impressed by the complex and flawed nature of them all.

The only real problem with the book was its lack of impact. I finished it about 3 weeks ago, but could remember next-to-nothing about the plot until I jogged my memory by reading some sections again. It was all subtle and clever –  which was entertaining at the time, but not compatible with leaving a lasting impression. The plot was strangely reminiscent of the silent comedies described within the book:

Most silent comedies hardly even bothered to tell stories. They were like poems, like the renderings of dreams, like some intricate choreography of the spirit, and because they were dead, they probably spoke more deeply to us now than they had to the audiences of their time. We watched them across a great chasm of forgetfulness…

Overall this was a beautifully written book containing lots of interesting passages. Recommended to those who like slow, thoughtful books.

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8 Comments

  1. Judith says:

    Sounds like a good book unless you want to write a review about it. I’ve had books like that, once you sit down to review them, you remember hardly anything, while when reading, they were quite good.

    Oh well, you did a good job: when I come across this book I will definitely pick it up!

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, Yes, it is a very hard book to review. It is one of those books that could be ruined by spoilers so you have the added burden of trying not to mention those things too! It was an enjoyable read, but I’m glad most other books are easier to write about.

  2. I’ve had this one on my TBR for some time as well. Most recently, I read Oracle Night, which at first left me wanting. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how clever and deep it was. Auster is one of my faves for this effect he has on me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Andi, Yes, I think Auster is one of those writers whose work gets better the more you think about it. He is very subtle but there are many layers to the text, which make it far cleverer than it initially seems. I haven’t read Oracle Night – I’ll ensure I read it at some point.

  3. Diane says:

    I’ve had some good luck with this author in the past. He writes well (different though). I need to try this one. Thanks for the recommendation

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, Yes, he is clearly a talented author. I look forward to trying the rest of his books.

  4. I’m glad I came back to read this review. I loved this book, read it two or three times for myself and for a book club.

    I like what you say about Auster being someone whose works make more of an impact on the reader the more the reader thinks about them afterwards. But, this one made quite an impact on me as I read it. I think all the business about the artist/film-maker making art that no one ever sees really struck home. Those movies he made just to be making movies all of which went into the fire at the end. That really struck a cord with me.

    I do make ‘art’ now and then, since I don’t have an ‘audience’ nor do I sell much, I make it for myself. Beyond that, I saw this as pretty much what most of our lives are like, lived for ourselves and the very small audience who appreciates us. I liked how Auster made it all seem worthwhile.

    You can see, I was very moved by The Book of Illusions. With Mr. Auster I am either very, very moved or left completely cold. This one, I would give five stars.

    1. Jackie says:

      James, I can see why it really struck a cord with you. Perhaps it didn’t have the same impact on me because I’m not an artist? He is a really clever author and I look forward to trying his other books. Hopefully some of them will impress me more.

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