Book Review: The Trick by Emanuel Bergmann

He picked up the penny, squeezed his eyes shut as hard as he could, and wished Dad was gone. Just like that. When he opened his fist, the penny was still in his hand. He heard the distant rumble of thunder in the San Gabriel Mountains. It would rain soon. Max suddenly felt bad. He looked around and immediately squelched his thought, but it was too late. Someone—God, maybe?—must have heard him thinking. A terrible chain of events was set in motion.

Weaving together two narratives, Emanuel Bergmann crafts an endearing tale about the ways the magic of the world helps us to survive in his debut historical fiction, The Trick.

The book opens in Prague at the start of World War I when the parents of our soon to be narrator struggle with the new responsibilities of war. Upon his return from the front, Labil Goldenhirsh, a Jewish Rabbi, is quick to welcome a son into the world. Though the dates don’t quite compute, he accepts it as ‘the work of God’ that his wife swears by. When his wife succumbs to cancer, Laibl struggles to raise his son, Moshe, knowing deep down that he may no be the boy’s true father. As a result their relationship is broken and when Moshe sees the circus for the first time, he is so captivated that he risks everything to join into the world where he feels he belongs.

One day, while Laibl was at temple, Moshe packed his few meager belongings—some provisions, his pocket knife, and his papers—and left his father’s apartment. He went to the cemetery and stood by his mother’s grave, asking her forgiveness for what he was about to do. He touched her headstone with his fingers, and then, with a heart both heavy and free, he turned around and walked toward the riverbank.

Moshe finds two things in the circus: skills as a mentalist and a new, non-Jewish, identity both of which prove invaluable as the threat of the Nazi party and WWII looms large. When an affair with a fellow circus performer sends him fleeing, Moshe’s life takes a dramatic turn. They find shelter and success in Berlin, though Moshe, better known as The Great Zabbatini, a Persian prince cum magician, lives with the fear of his true Jewish identity being discovered.

Now in twenty-first century Los Angeles, Max Cohn is a young boy trying to cope with the recent announcement of his parents divorce. In a bout of childhood resentment for his chores, Max wished his father gone, but little did he know that his wish would soon come true. Now riddled with guilt, he desperately searches for a way to erase this mistake and repair his parent’s marriage. What he finds brings our two narratives together in a unique and captivating way.

Max carefully pushed the record back in its sleeve and turned it around. On the back, he saw the list of the “greatest tricks” that the man in the silver toga had to offer: THE WONDERS OF THE FAKIR, Max read, MAGICAL NUMBERS, TOAD MAGIC, and, all the way at the bottom: THE SPELL OF ETERNAL LOVE. Apparently, its entire purpose was to explain magic spells  to the listener, for “the amazement of family and friends…and to change your life!” It was just what he needed. The wheels started turning inside Max’s head.

Max sets out to track down The Great Zabbatini and request his assistance with ‘The Spell of Eternal Love’. What Max finds is a cantankerous and slightly perverted elderly man who is ready to leave this world behind. Misery loves company and together Moshe and Max wade through their dilemmas, both past and present. Little do they know just how much they need the other. As the story continues we learn more of Moshe’s life in Berlin and the many ways he continues to impact Max’s life.

Filled with humor and heart, The Trick is an understated historical fiction that skillfully mixes whimsy with historical richness.

When Max looked up and saw the sunlight streaming through the trees, he understood, with sudden clarity, that he owed this man more than simply his life. The Great Zabbatini has given him a glimpse of the strange wonders and weird beauty that lay hidden in the world around him. This was not just a trick, Max realized. It was a miracle.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Atria Books.

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