The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster
The unswerving compulsion to unearth, and ultimately understand, another person's identity is a theme that Paul Auster returns to frequently in his work, in novels such as New York Trilogy and Leviathan, and yet here, in the Book of Illusions, it is more brilliantly realised than ever. The story-within-a-story motif is ever-present (as it is in his latest work Oracle Night) but the different strands are so ingeniously interwoven that this familiar technique never seems predictable or tired. Also present is Auster's continuing fascination with the medium of film - he has written several successful screenplays for films such as Smoke and Blue in the Face.
David Zimmer, the protagonist finds solace from the grief of losing his wife and two sons in a plane crash by immersing himself in the films of silent comedy star, Hector Mann (and Auster provides some exquisitely detailed descriptions of several of Mann's films). An academic by profession, David writes a critical study of Mann's work, but, as the book is published, he is contacted by sources who claim that Hector Mann, who hasn't been seen for almost sixty years and is presumed dead, is alive and living in New Mexico. Fuelled by the desire to resolve the puzzle of Hector's missing years, David travels to the ranch where Hector now lives and where he and his wife have spent the last six decades making mysterious films that have never been screened in public.
Brimming with plot twists and turns, The Book of Illusions is a compelling literary mystery story, but it is also a complex and genuinely moving meditation on the nature of identity and how any attempt to live vicariously through another's life will always be doomed to failure. It also questions whether art can or should ever be truly immortal and whether or not an artist relinquishes all moral rights to their work once they are gone. This is a stunning summation of Auster's literary vision that thrills on the first read, but offers more than enough depth to satisfy numerous re-readings.