There is a confidential, intimacy to the narration of “The Disappearance Boy” that makes it feel as if you’re in a smoke-filled pub late at night listening to an enthralling tale from the strangest man you’ve ever met. Bartlett uses his considerable experience of working in the theatre to inform both the subject of this new novel and the direct, dramatic way he tells his story. When describing a bizarre, but touching habit of one of his characters he writes “It’s a strange business, talking to the dead – but if you’ve ever done it, then you won’t need me to tell you that.” This friendly intriguing tone carries throughout the book making it an engrossing and fascinating read.
As in a cinematic opening scene, we’re introduced to the “boy” in question with the novel’s vivid first chapter where he comes close to death standing on train tracks in a stance of surrender. Some years later, we meet up with this boy Reggie who is now a young man working for an illusionist named Mr Brookes. Having suffered from polio, Reggie has a misshapen walk. It’s wryly remarked that “Every human step is a fall from which we save ourselves, they say, but in Reggie’s case that’s even more true than normal.” He has an endearing closed-mouthed grin due to his bad teeth and an introverted personality borne no doubt out of his disability and his hidden homosexuality. He makes for a submissive assistant who quietly serves to make the magic happen behind the scenes. He’s in every sense the opposite of Mr Brookes who is confident, handsome and a highly-sexed cad. Together they tour around the country with Brookes’ magic act in which he makes a glamorous female assistant disappear. Although it’s only part of the act, the women in the equation frequently soon leave for good as Mr Brookes has a habit of bedding and abusing them in a cycle Reggie has witnessed with contempt. When a particularly beautiful and savvy woman named Pamela joins the act for a gig in Brighton, Mr Brookes declares her to be special. But it’s Reg who realizes how special she really is and the two form a bond which will change their circumstances for good.
Bartlett has a masterful way of describing an environment that hits all the senses and makes the reader feel as if they are actually experiencing being in a bygone era. Take, for instance, this description of the theatre in which the act takes place: “They’re almost all gone now, these buildings, but if you’re trying to imagine what one of them would have been like to live and work in, then I suggest you start with the smell. It never quite goes away, in a theatre: breath, sweat, chocolate, clothing – and cigarettes, lots of them, in those days.” These descriptions rouse the senses to ground the reader in the gritty reality of the place. It’s particularly special how he gives an informed feeling for the way an experience of a place has changed over time.
The characters also express in their actions and dialogue the different restrictions people experienced in the 1950s. This includes Reg’s longing to find a man to share his bed; his search is limited to longing stares at men on the street or hurried clandestine fumbling with men in notorious meeting spots down by the sea in the darkness of night. It’s also shown in the way Pam expresses the difficulty of obtaining an abortion during those times where there was a complicated, expensive and demeaning charade to get the procedure done: “at least four of us must have borrowed her certificate for that all-important little interview at the clinic.” Giving an informed understanding of the social conditions of the period adds great poignancy to the clearly described physical representation of this era where life was very different from the circumstances we experience today.
As in so much of Angela Carter’s writing, the overarching story of theatre life is the perfect vehicle for exploring deeper issues to do with identity. Reg is specially positioned both in his profession as a behind-the-scenes trickster and as an introverted shy man to observe how so much about people’s social identities are only an act. Yet, he sees people continually falling for the illusions wondering in frustration “Why do people never spot how the world actually works?” The answer is that like the audience of these shows people are lulled into believing what they see is real when in actuality they are only witnessing an act. All that is needed to make people believe you are something you are not is to authentically believe and act like it yourself as Pam considers at one point: “Bringing off a character was all to do with how you considered yourself, she thought. How you felt inside when you looked in the mirror.” The story presents the complex way fantasy informs the way we perceive other people and how that perception can be strategically manipulated by playing upon those fantasies.
“The Disappearance Boy” feels like a very personal novel which is beautifully tender at times. I developed a strong emotional connection with both Reg and Pam so I was carried along through to the climactic ending which occurs amidst the queen’s coronation day. Bartlett has a particularly evocative menacing quality to his writing which hints at the potential for danger. It raises a seductive sort of fear which prickles with suspense and has a heavy hint of sexual desire. He demonstrated this masterfully in his previous novel “Skin Lane” which is a book that has stuck with me since I read it in 2008. Bartlett has only produced a small group of distinctive well-regarded novels since he began publishing in the 80s. I hope that he continues to publish more.
Read an excellent interview with Bartlett where he discusses his work on a project called Letter to an Unknown Soldier and his thoughts on "The Disappearance Boy" here: http://dontdoitmag.co.uk/issue-five/telling-stories-an-interview-with-neil-bartlett/