ON THE NATURE OF MAGIC by Marian Womack (BOOK REVIEW)
“Helena’s investigations had made her realise how so often women’s safety, the difference between being sent to the madhouse or not, depended on how men interpreted them, read them. It wasn’t so much about losing one’s reputation as about losing one’s freedom, and, in the most extreme cases, one’s life. The zealous work of the Society for Psychical Research was clearly at fault here, with their insistence on the unreliability of female experience. But who was telling the truth, and who wasn’t? Many times, it was a matter of interpretation, of who decided to look at you, of the preconceptions they used, of how they decided to frame the narrative that explained what they were seeing.”
Marian Womack’s On the Nature of Magic (2023) is the welcome sequel to her wonderful English language debut novel The Golden Key (2020). Like the previous book, the novel follows the adventures of Helena Walton-Cisneros and Eliza Waltraud, Womack’s two female investigators, who after the events of The Golden Key have set up Walton & Waltraud, their own detective agency specialising in helping women. Once again they find themselves investigating the slippery boundaries between the real and the magical. But whereas The Golden Key drew on the fairy tales of George MacDonald to create an early 20th century mystery with surprisingly modern resonances about climate change, On the Nature of Magic gives us a Parisian mystery that engages with the films of pioneering French film maker Georges Méliès in order to dissect our relationship with films and mass media. Beautifully written and artfully constructed, On the Nature of Magic is just as compelling and thought-provoking as its predecessor, and shows Womack continuing to move from strength to strength as a writer.
On the Nature of Magic is set in 1902, a year after the events of The Golden Key. The case Helena and Eliza solved together on the Norfolk fens has made the women firm friends, and together they have decided to form a detective agency with the purpose of helping women, who are frequently disbelieved by male detectives. But tensions have risen between the two – Helena’s experiences with the supernatural, as well as an understanding of her own gifts, have led her to move from being a strict rationalist who was using her work as a medium as a cover to an understanding that the world is vastly more complex and strange than she can explain, whereas Eliza still very much believes everything can be explained by the scientific method. But all their attention is soon consumed by their first case. Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain, two English women who are the principal and deputy of St Hugh’s College, claim to have travelled in time whilst visiting the gardens of Versailles and seen Marie Antoinette. No sooner have Helena and Eliza started investigating, when they are given a second case, also in Paris, by Eliza’s ex-lover Mina Lowry, whose friend Emily was working at the Méliès Star Films studio when she was kidnapped in broad daylight by forces unknown. Helena and Eliza’s investigation leads them to Paris, the Palace of Versailles, and the catacombs beneath the city, as they uncover a sinister conspiracy linking pioneering film maker Georges Méliès with Nikola Tesla and the London and Parisian chapters of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Womack once again creates a detailed and well-researched historical fantasy with which to explore surprisingly modern themes. This time round, Helena and Eliza tangle with figures from the early days of film making such as Méliès and pioneer of narrative film Alice Guy, as well as famous inventers Tesla and Thomas Eddison, and rival leaders of the Golden Dawn William Woodman and Sam Mathers. The new setting of Paris gives the book a distinct flavour from its predecessor, and Womack wonderfully evokes both the frightening Catacombs and the sinister whimsy of Méliès’s Star Films studio. And Womack gives both Helena and Eliza interesting character development – it’s clear that this is not a series where the detective remains a static character, and Helena and Eliza’s personal development and conflict with each other takes both of them to interesting new ground. Also joining Walton & Waltraud is Jocasta Webster, an African-American queer librarian who has come to London to escape her abusive step father with her brilliant anarchist brother. Jocasta is a wonderful character and a welcome addition to the team, and I hope we get more of her in later instalments of the series.
The central mysteries of On the Nature of Magic are set around the dawn of cinema as a medium, a new technology that straddles the lines between magic and science, and one which Helena and Eliza immediately grasp just how disruptive it will be for the century to come. Womack is always concerned with stories and the nature of storytelling, and film is a powerful medium of storytelling which will demonstrate just how crucial narratives are in shaping public opinion, as Alice and Eliza anticipate:
‘Why do you think his movies make you sick?’
Alice sighed. ‘All his star-women, celestial-women, fairies, butterflies, even planets Millie was talking about. They are immobile, docile, decorative, always at the mercy of the men. It is perverse. He once – I remember this movie. I was utterly disgusted.’
Alice was now speaking perhaps more reluctantly than Eliza had expected.
‘He wanted to show a magician creating a human doll by taking dolls’ parts out of a box, and then, using substitution splicing – it is a technique, I shall explain later what it is – turn it into a woman. And then back again into a doll, and put the pieces away. I said no way, I was not going to help with this. Living dolls! Doll women!’
Eliza did not understand. What was Alice talking about?
‘I’m sorry Alice, I’m not sure I follow.’
‘Don’t you?’ Alice stopped, looked left and right before she spoke again: ‘He is spreading these ideas about women, normalising them. He is creating stories that a woman is a disposable thing.’
This made Eliza shiver.
Cinema offers a unique opportunity to mould the consensus narrative to the view of the person holding the camera, in much the same way that the members of the Golden Dawn seek power to remake the world in their image. But here the crucial issue is who gets to tell the story and from what perspective. Just as Helena and Eliza feel obliged to take the cases of the two English schoolteachers because they are key figures in the young field of women’s formal education in England, and the attempts by the SPR to discredit them will inevitably shape public opinion on women’s ability to access education, so the power of Méliès’ brilliant special effects work allied to his misogynistic worldview will spread unhealthy ideas about women as objects. In this light, Tesla’s dreams of a wirelessly connected future are less than utopian, anticipating the ways in which the internet and social media provide terrifying power for social control.
On the Nature of Magic is a brilliant sequel, one that reminds the reader how much they loved The Golden Key whilst expanding the ideas and characters in new and intriguing directions. Womack continues to write haunting and thought-provoking novels like no one else in the field, and I very much hope that Helena and Eliza will return for more adventures soon.
On the Nature of Magic is available now from Titan Books, you can order your copy HERE