Because my first novel, Mrs. Houdini, is about the famous illusionist’s wife, sometimes I am asked whether I believe in magic.
When I was living in Ireland, that magical isle, in 2008 as a graduate student, I did not see any fairies or leprechauns. I did see a lot of chain restaurants and malls. In the late nineties, the Celtic Tiger had come to Ireland. Ten years later the streets still sang with this affluence: shops were crammed, hotels were expensive, and the lights of the pubs blazed late into the night. It was to be the last year of the Tiger, but none of us knew this yet; my Irish classmates and I enjoyed gourmet meals and train trips to Galway and cheap flights to England and Italy. After such a long, sad history of misfortune, of famine and scandal and poverty—which had sent my great-great-grandmother, like many others, across the Atlantic to America—there was only the enchanted air of celebration.
Sometimes I heard people wonder whether Ireland had modernized too quickly, whether an Ireland of Vodafone and Marks and Spencer meant that perhaps the old Ireland had been lost. But I saw the magic of Old Ireland everywhere I went that year. I saw it in County Cork, when I walked through a storm at dusk to Blarney Castle and kissed the Blarney Stone, lying upside-down off the edge of the castle wall while the rain fell like tinsel around me. I saw magic in the cobblestoned streets of Galway, in the lilt of the shopkeepers’ voices and the way everyone seemed to call everyone “love” and in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin with its velvet curtains and the ghosts of Yeats and Lady Gregory in the wings. I saw it in a firelit café on the Aran Islands after a long walk along the cliffs in the spring cold, and the warm, coarse brown bread I have never tasted since. I saw it in the voices of the street musicians who sang on Grafton Street until three a.m. on Saturday nights, and the Bulgarian woman who ran the nail salon near my room and talked only of her family, and in the hillsides dotted with sheep and heather, and in the stone angels of the Powerscourt Gardens, and the cracked pages of old Biblical texts at the Chester Beatty Library.
Do I believe in magic? I have had psychics tell me things about my life so far from the truth it was embarrassing even to be present. I am amazed by David Blaine but know that there is a difference between illusion and magic. I know that Harry Houdini made an elephant disappear in front of hundreds of people but he used no special powers to do so. But I have also had a white-haired fortune-teller in New Orleans ask me, out of the blue, why I had stopped going to church, at a time in my life when I had stopped going to church. And I have seen the miracles of children being born to friends who were told they could never have children. And I have watched the sun rise over the pink ocean, and stood staring at the gray, churning Irish Sea and the yellow-lit windows of a pub in the rain.
"A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains / All that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins." (Yeats, "Byzantium")