Lisa Mannetti’s The Box Jumper is a novella that seduces you
with exquisite prose, keeps you wanting more due to a a teasing
narrative from a unreliable narrator, and leaves you with the
bittersweet aftertaste of existential angst. It is a mesmerizing if
challenging combination of a mystery, bio-fictional drama, and a slowly
developing touch of the supernatural. Much of that challenge has to do
with the non-linear telling of the story by our main character. Leona
Derwatt is the long-time assistant and confidant of legendary magician
and escape artist Harry Houdini. In the parlance of the magic trade she
is a Box Jumper, one who assists the magician in pulling off the tricks
of his trade. Leona is also essential to Houdini’s later stage of his
life which centers on exposing fake mediums and their séances. The
practice makes Houdini a few enemies that not only affect his life but
haunts Leona’s far after Houdini’s death.
It is the narrative of
this haunting tale that makes it both a challenging read and one that
surrounds the reader with awe and mystery. The first person narrative is
that of Leona’s and it is the type that we believe at first but then
question. She leaps back and forth to different time frames. One is in
the 20s when Houdini is still alive and the other is in her later years
as she is confronted by unwelcome reminders of the past. Some of the
narration is fairly straight, especially those where we learn about
Houdini, Leona’s complex connection to him, and his obsession with fake
mediums. Other parts reads like a fever dream, a psychedelic nightmare.
The narration is always involving and beautiful, a testament to the
author’s poetic skills. The darkness of the story hold you partially
because Leona seems so real and alive.
Another successful touch
is the author’s combining of historical characters and those that are
fictional . Leona is the lead fictional character. Yet much of the
tension evolves around Houdini and the Sherlock Holmes writer Arthur
Conan Doyle, whose belief in the supernatural is threatened by Houdini’s
exposure of the fake psychics. I believe the other protagonists in this
tale such as Emory, a competing magician, and Evelyn, a medium with
questionable tactics and motives, are fictional yet Mannetti blends the
real and fictional so well together that I would not be surprised if
they, or a factual equivalence, actually existed.
The Box Jumper
is fairly short at just over 100 pages. So it is important not to give
much away. Yet it is not really the plot that I recommend it for. It is
the joy of seeing a talented and gifted writer weave a literary spell.
It is the writing that shines and if the nontraditional telling is a bit
challenging, the writing is not. This is one of those books that may be
lumped into the dark fantasy genre but deserved to be read by anyone
who loves a quality novel.