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Doesn't quite add up
on September 10, 2003
Basically a "spiritual thriller" about supernatural powers breaking in on everyday life when they are summoned for selfish purposes, this story is very interesting in places but fails to convince the reader that what is happening is really very important.
In the 1920s or '30s, in England, a young woman, Nancy Coningsby, the daughter of a minor civil servant, is engaged to a young man from the Roma (Gypsy) people. Nancy's father, a rather dim, pompous sort, owns a very rare, old set of Tarot cards bequeathed to him by a deceased friend, and it is his intention to turn the cards over to a museum upon his own death. Nancy's fiance, Henry, realizes that this particular Tarot deck is the only "true" deck in existence--that is, a deck that is so accurately rendered that it can truly summon and command occult powers, as opposed to other sets that lack any real power.
Henry's grandfather, Aaron, occupies a 17th century house where there is a table in a secret room, and on the table, there is a collection of miniature figures in a perpetual dance that is supposed to represent the "Great Dance," which is said to be the foundation of the universe. If the deck of cards can come into the possession of the owner of the table and the miniature figures, then the owner will achieve consummate power and be able to command the four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire.
Henry contrives to lure Nancy, her father, Mr. Coningsby, and Nancy's unmarried aunt, Sybil, who lives with them, to Aaron's house for Christmas, in the hope of getting the cards away from Coningsby. Since he cannot use direct violence, he uses the occult power of the cards to create a blinding snowstorm when Coningsby goes out for a walk on Christmas afternoon, in the hopes that the man will die in the storm.
Two elements disrupt this plan: one is Sybil, Nancy's aunt, who is so spiritually advanced that she lives in a perpetual atmosphere of deep, loving calm, and can apparently perceive things that others cannot and remain unhurt in circumstances that would injure others; the other disruptive element is Henry's own great-aunt, Aaron's sister, Joanna, a half-demented old woman who believes her own deceased child was the reincarnation of the Egyptian god Horus and has spent years wandering the back roads looking for a way to bring him back to life; Joanna inconveniently shows up Christmas afternoon, after being estranged from her brother for years.
The premise is very interesting, and there is even some comedy at the expense of the pompous Coningsby, and Nancy's aunt Sibyl is at times a fascinating figure--rather like a female Christ or Buddha figure come to life. However, the author finally fails to make one believe that what is happening is important enough to care deeply about.
Something goes awry with the snow storm, which spirals out of control, and we are assured by Henry and Aaron that the elements will now destroy the world. If that, or something like it, truly happened, as in the climax of Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle," it might be compelling tragedy, but it seems we are only being teased, since a different outcome occurs. At various times on Christmas afternoon, Nancy both discovers her fiance's treachery toward her father (intending to use the storm to murder him and obtain the cards) and is nearly made a human sacrifice by the half-demented old aunt Joanna who is searching for Horus, but by the end of the afternoon, everyone is cozily reconciled, and the young pair are even persisting in their plans to be married! Nobility and compassion are one thing, but fatuity is another. None of this seems very realistic.
I started out reading all this with some eagerness, but in the end, was left feeling that I had read a story that was at times quite silly and trivial, and weighted down with a great deal of overblown language about mystical themes that the events of the story simply wouldn't bear. This was the fifth Williams novel I had read, over a period of some years, and I would recommend "Many Dimensions" or "All Hallows Eve" instead of this book.