Bartlett, Neil. “The Disappearance Boy: A Novel”, Bloomsbury 2014..
Meet Reggie Rainbow
Reggie Rainbow is an orphan and his name was given to him by the orphanage. Now in his twenties, as a child Reggie had been a victim to polio and had to depend upon crutches to get around and this caused him to have nimble fingers and strong hands. His dexterity made him ideal for illusions and this was why Mr. Brooks hired him. Reggie became a disappearance boy and for years he has made many assistants vanish. Mr. Brooks trick and misdirected the audience as Reggie performed.
As time passed, audiences became smaller and by 1953, the art of illusion had fallen out of favor with audiences. When Mr. Brooks finally get a chance to get his show into Brighton Grand, Reggie realizes that he is in a strange place, one he has no knowledge of. Then there was Pamela Rose, Brooks’ beautiful new assistant and as the time grew closer for the show to open, Reggie began to wonder if his own life was nothing but an illusion. It was at this point that he set out to find the person who disappeared from his life long ago.
The fact that the novel is set in 1953 is important in that the show in Brighton was to be in honor of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Author Bartlett gives us both a coming of age story and a romance in this book. Many felt that the reason the act was not as successful lately is because it had been done so many times that many were bored with it. In the show, a woman was confined in a mirror-lined box, spun about and made to vanish only to reappear from off stage as fully transformed as Eliza Doolittle. When Pamela came aboard, we watch Reggie transform from a boy to a man.
The title is not just about Reggie as we see deceivers and deceptions in other places too. The book has a gothic/Victorian feel to it and much is said about the dark areas of England and the shame of having illicit sex rendezvous’.
Reggie really has no friends and when Pam comes into the act, she teaches him not to be afraid of love and to let his feelings guide him. Reggie believes in the nobility of motherhood even though he has never met his mother. Reggie also believes in the power of redemption.
While Reggie is the man character, Mr. Brooks stands at the center of this novel and, in effect, the story revolves around his arrogant behavior and how he has the ability to misdirect perception. Brooks is not evil or bad but neither is he a role model. As readers, we feel nothing for him. He is a dictator and a philanderer. Reggie feels something for Pam but in a sisterly way. He begins to give into his homosexual yearnings.
The prose is beautiful as are the descriptions of England at that time. Where the book really shines is in the descriptions of Reggie’s loneliness and unfulfilled desires, as well as the how he deals with his feelings. We see the parallel between the illusionist’s act and what the characters do to survive. As Reggie goes through life looking
for his place and purpose as a gay man, we are right there with him.