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The Great Bravura by Jill Dearman – Review

May 9, 2018

The Great Bravura is a novel which weaves together illusion and film noir, philosophy and art and sexuality and a missing woman case. It is a mystery whodunnit that asks ‘Is the central event a crime or an illusion?’

Bravura and Susie have a magic act in 1940s New York, plus a friendship and on/off romance which has served them well. But when the seductive Lena joins their act, like the uninvited guest in a Harold Pinter play, she begins to tear them apart with her belief in real magic. When Susie vanishes during their ‘Disappearing Box’ act, Bravura is at a loss. Has Lena used the dark arts to get rid of Susie, making it a case of murder by illusion?

Dearman presents a noir world where people are drawn to the colour of magic, but the real magic act of this novel is how the post-war period setting is an alternative history where gay marriage and lesbian parents are as commonplace and accepted as they are in liberal societies today. Any noir aficionado is drawn to the romanticism of the 1940s/50s era with its mean streets, smoky bars and hardboiled attitude, but looking back at this time, readers of traditional noirs will recognise homophobic attitudes that rankle today. Dearman could have made this a narrative about prejudice. Instead, it reads as a celebration of sexuality and noir, with musings on surrealism and metaphysics woven into the text as effortlessly as the references to classic film noirs: ‘Build My Gallows High’, ‘Leave Her to Heaven’, ‘Nightmare Alley’ and more seminal noir titles are all used as chapter headings. The story alternates between the three first-person viewpoints: Bravura’s, Lena’s and Susie’s. This gives the reader insight into the minds of Dearman’s three illusionists and heightens the sense of difficulty Bravura increasingly faces in separating reality from fiction. Is the titular character controlling these illusory images or is she subservient to a dream-like reality?:

The moment before you awaken is usually the most glorious. You are awash in the world of dreams. When you open your eyes, that’s when reality starts to sink in. You’re not a rich gentleman farmer living the quiet life. You’re not a household name, worshipped by millions of adoring fans. But for me, that morning, whatever I was dreaming about – dancing with Dietrich? Playing poker with Orson? – none of it could compare to what I had right beside me in real life.

Where was she?

The moment between sleep and waking, between the missing and the deceptively apparent, infuses Dearman’s vision of noir. In an interview for The Brooklyn Railshe compares noir to the ‘missing letter’ of the Hebrew alphabet:

It’s impossible-to-name sound that fills the void in the universe. The breath of life in other cultures. I think of it as the pause that we “hear” yet don’t hear in music. Noir contains a lot of that silent invisible presence. Noir is impossible to define in an absolute way, yet oftentimes it is the musicality of it—the jazzy American riffing, mixed with the wild id-driven and idiosyncratic exploration of the irrationality of human nature that the French existentialists wrote about so eloquently—that makes us recognize a work of fiction or film as truly “noir.”

While critical arguments persist about which works classify as noir and which do not, this reader is left in no doubt that with this novel Dearman has captured the musicality of the genre, and with it she has crafted a darkly romantic and thrilling noir tale. But even if you’re not a fan of the genre, like a sceptic at a magic show, you’ll find yourself surprised, deceived and won-over by The Great Bravura.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Burt Shulman permalink
    May 10, 2018 8:47 pm

    I’ve been a great fan of Jill Dearman’s for years. This novel is wonderfully engaging, entertaining, haunting — unlike anything I’ve read. Captivating, original, propulsive — and funny! — from a writer I will continue to follow.

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