World of Wonders

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

This, the third and concluding book of Davies’ trilogy (Fifth Business, 1970, The Manticore, 1972) is one of those rare works which does not require a knowledge of the first two books for its appreciation. In fact, new readers coming upon Davies’ characters for the first time in World of Wonders have an added thrill of discovery as the author ties together the threads of the apparently disparate lives and careers of many of the characters.

The underlying premise of the three books is an incident which altered the lives of all those involved in it: a young boy threw a snowball with a stone embedded in it at his playmate; his companion ducked and the snowball struck the pregnant wife of the Baptist minister, causing her to give birth eighty days early and ultimately causing her to go mad. Fifth Business, the first novel in the trilogy consists of a lengthy letter written by Dunstan Ramsay, the boy who averted the snowball and is now an elderly Canadian schoolmaster, detailing his lifelong remorse over the incident, and introducing the mysterious circumstances of the death of Percy Boyd (Boy) Staunton, the snowball thrower, with the same stone in his mouth, decades later. The Manticore presents a psychological study of Boy Staunton’s son who has become a drunken lawyer. World of Wonders traces how Paul Dempster, the unborn child, grew to become Magnus Eisengrim, a world-renowned magician who is now called upon to portray the life of the legendary French magician, Robert Houdin, for a B. B. C. film.

As in his previous books, Davies is more interested in ideas than in the simple narration of plot. This novel presents a story within a story, the framework of which is related by Ramsay. While working on the film, the various principals gather to listen to Magnus Eisengrim relate how he became the world’s greatest magician to provide a kind of “subtext” for the proposed film of Houdin. This subtext idea permeates the entire novel under various guises. Underlying all is the question of what is the truth. The narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, a historian, sees truth in the documentary records left behind by a society. To Jurgen Lind, the Swedish film director, it is an era’s “music, the way its clothes ought to be worn, the demeanour of its people, and its quality of life and spirit.” Lind’s cameraman, Harry Kinghoven, sees reality as something he can manipulate by camera angles and the intensity and shading of light. Eisengrim the magician is primarily concerned with illusions created by attention to details. Author Davies’ narrative technique lets his characters dole out bits and pieces of truth as they see fit; but the interruptions and differing interpretations of others bring the reader to realize that objective truth is ultimately attainable only through looking at the same details through every possible point of view, or as Liesl says, from God’s point of view.

Within this frame story, Magnus Eisengrim takes over and relates his life’s experiences which led to his present position. But the same problem the filmmakers have found with Houdin’s autobiography arises with Eisengrim’s relation. As an autobiography is...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXIV, June 5, 1976, p. 503.

Book World. May 30, 1976, p. F7.

New Leader. LIX, March 29, 1976, p. 16.

New York Times. March 4, 1976, p. 29.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCIX, February 23, 1976, p. 116.

Times Literary Supplement. May 14, 1976, p. 588.