The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson
[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson is the story of three young women in academia, all of whom become involved in a particular type of game that combines urban exploration with LARPing (live-action role-playing). Logical Ruth is primarily interested in games as teaching tools. Anna, a more right-brained sort, prefers visceral games that effect a psychological transformation on their players. Their more reserved friend Lucy is along for the ride. The novel is primarily narrated by Ruth and Lucy, with occasional Internet posts from Anna interspersed.
The novel begins slowly — as it needs to. Davidson takes time to explain to the reader what the characters mean by “games” and how they work. This material is sometimes related in a dry style (including in the dialogue), yet I found it interesting. Meanwhile, she’s also fleshing out the three women and the emotional issues they bring to the table. It was clear that this would be one of those novels where there’s a deep dark secret and eventual violence, and curiosity and tension began to build in me as I read all this set-up. What would the secret be, and in what terrible way would it affect the friends? As I said, the beginning is slow, but it needs to be, and I enjoyed it.
There is a slight time jump at just over the halfway point, and this is where the problems begin. Lucy has gone home for several weeks to deal with a family emergency. Anna’s brother Anders has arrived on the scene, and he and Ruth have begun a relationship. Yet this happens almost entirely off the page, and we see most of this relationship’s development through the eyes of Lucy, who arrives in medias res and narrates it from her outsider’s perspective. This is a valuable perspective, but because we don’t get much of anyone else’s point of view, the appeal of Anders doesn’t come through to the reader, and so it’s hard to understand the trouble he causes.
After this point, the rest of the plot whips past at breakneck speed. There’s a moment when you realize there’s not enough book left for everything Davidson needs to put in it. She hits the requisite plot points for a dark-secrets-erupting-into-violence plot, yes, but so rapidly and with so little emotional buildup that their appearance seems perfunctory, as if she is running down a bulleted list.
Also not developed enough is the bacchanalian aspect to the story. At Lucy’s suggestion, the group begins developing a game based on Euripides’ The Bacchae. This game leads to very real bacchanalia as the various players get deeply into their roles. There is ample opportunity here for scenes of heady sensuality that could have shown the reader why the players are so seduced. But all of this is told from the point of view of Lucy, who is both embarrassed by what’s going on and intentionally trying to be succinct because she’s making a statement to the police. The only time these scenes’ Dionysian power really comes through is in scenes where the players’ dialogue is included (such as chanting, or arguments with the opposing side) — that is, when the plot briefly breaks out of its frame story. Davidson has limited her novel too much with the distancing techniques she uses to tell it.
I’ve read comparisons of The Magic Circle to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a novel I haven’t read but have always meant to. For my part, based on the plot synopsis, I went into The Magic Circle hoping for a blend of Carol Goodman’s The Lake of Dead Languages and Elizabeth Hand’s Black Light. As it turns out, while neither of those novels is flawless, both are far more immersive than The Magic Circle. I recommend them instead: the former for dark secrets and some ancient Greek allusions, and the latter for trippy bacchanalia.