Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Moore once more engaged his imagination with history, and as he did in Black Robe and Lies of Silence (1990), as he grapples with the effects of colonialism and effects of political and cultural exploitation. His novels shuttle among eras and different nations and cultures; in this novel, action is situated in mid-nineteenth century France and Algeria, revealing the origins of France’s domination of North Africa.
The magician’s wife of the title is Emmeline Lambert, an intelligent woman eclipsed by her husband’s celebrity and her gender’s marginal influence in French aristocratic circles. Her husband is summoned to Emperor Napoléon III’s winter palace for what appears to be royal performance but is actually a political maneuver. Lambert is dispatched to Algeria to hoodwink a local leader into suspending a jihad that would rout Europeans from his country. Just when it appears that his charade has succeeded, his wife, acting out of disgust and an act of conscience, confesses the chicanery to the leader, and her husband is shot and paralyzed.
The theme of deception is paramount. Lambert, though celebrated and famous, is actually a cheap fraud, and like other frauds in Moore’s works, he is a morally vapid figure. Witnessing his self-absorption and chicanery, Emmeline realizes that her marriage is the product of trickery. The man she believed possessed nobility of spirit is an empty vessel. The aristocrats at the emperor’s palace represent another collection of impostors and predatory exploiters. Worst of all is the emperor, whose hapless foreign policy is the furthest thing from his ancestor’s world-altering adventures.
Moore returns one last time to his concern with the role of faith in human life. Emmeline contrasts the empty formalism of Catholicism and its rituals with the prayers of the Muslims. In Algeria, she finds profound, genuine intensity of belief, where people, no matter how elevated or ordinary, are informed by a belief in the power and immanence of God in their lives. Then a Muslim leader forestalls his jihad not because he is overwhelmed by Lambert’s prestidigitation but because of a conviction of his own moral superiority that needs no outward show to confirm its force.