Why bother reviewing a book written more than fifty years ago? Because (1) I’d never heard of it until recently; (2) I suspect many others haven’t either; and (3) an author who can lure you through a story running almost six hundred pages across minefields of mythical characters and untranslated languages, deserves a revival.
Told in first person, The Magus is the odyssey of Nicholas Urfe, a rootless and self-centered young scholar whose callous rejection of a lover leads him into a purgatory of charm, deception and betrayal. Soon after taking a teaching job on the Greek island of Phraxos, Nicholas becomes involved with Maurice Conchise, a reclusive Englishman and hero to the local population. The more Nicholas learns about Conchise, the more his curiosity deepens. Is he the saint many villagers claim he is, or something so sinister that others won’t discuss him at all? What of the unseen figures lurking about his beachside villa? What is Nicholas to make of the ethereal Lily with whom he falls in love? Is she playacting her various roles, Conchise’s prisoner one moment, a seductress the next?
The answers seem to lie in Webster’s secondary definition of the word magus: a magician or sorcerer. Conchise creates an elaborate intrigue, all the more compelling because one never knows who is being deceived – the victim or the perpetrator’s allies. Determined to solve Conchise’s increasingly complex puzzle, Nicholas finds himself the narrator of a unique detective story, increasingly entangled in it, ultimately consumed by it — like the girl he earlier seduced, then betrayed.
I can’t risk any further detail without spoiling the game for you. I promise that if you like a good mystery, Fowles does not disappoint, even if you, as I did, occasionally trip over baffling French paragraphs and unfamiliar Greek characters. He is a master at drawing us into a tangible Aegean landscape, as important to the narrative as its characters. Much like the ancient legends to which Nicholas refers throughout the book, The Magus is a commentary on humanity’s inbred need to worship a deity, while despising that deity for making us pawns in a life game we often feel powerless to understand.
I’m deducting one star from this five-star book for its occasional foul language and a few detailed sexual scenes.