Jun 9, 2008

Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallace

This is the story of Henry Walker, a man who is rumoured to once have had access to real magic, magic of the kind that is normally not available to humans. His powers, they say, were given to him by the Devil himself, whom he met when he was ten years old.

But in 1950, when Henry joins Jeremiah Musgrove’s Chinese Circus, he is reduced to entertaining crowds at dusty southern towns as the clumsy and powerless Negro Magician. Then four years later, when he mysteriously disappears, his friends put together everything they know about him to try and reach the truth about Henry Walker’s life.
Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.
Anyone who reads this blog will probably be familiar with this quote from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, since I have it on my left sidebar. Why am I posting it here? Because when I was first introduced to Daniel Wallace’s world through Big Fish, that passage immediately came to my mind. I thought that it perfectly summed up what was at the core of the story told in Big Fish.

Well, the same can be said of Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician. Facts and the truth are not the same thing. This is what Henry Walker’s friends conclude when they realize that—well, I won’t tell you what they realize. For that you’ll have to read the book. But they come to understand that letting go of the facts is sometimes the best way to reach something that feels true, that is true in a fundamental sort of way that doesn't have all that much to do with reality. Like stories, like fairy tales, like myths.

Even though this story is about Henry Walker, he remains elusive, like the stuff of legend. His life is retold through the points of view of his Circus friends, of those who loved him. I had to smile when I realized that this was how the story was going to be told. It’s such a Daniel Wallace thing to do. And it works marvellously.

Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is such a tender story. It’s sad and beautiful in a quiet sort of way. Ken was right – I found a new favourite. Daniel Wallace is one of my favourite authors, and once again he doesn't disappoint. This is a story about race, yes, and about identity, and very much about loss and grief. It’s also about belonging and families, and of course, it's about stories. About what they say about the tellers and what they say about the subject of the tale. How much of us is there in the stories we make up, and in the stories we repeat? When Henry Walker’s friends tell his story, how much of themselves are they bringing in?

When certain secrets are revealed at the end of the novel, it also becomes a story about regret, about a man whose life was ruled by loss. But also about a man who was loved. A man who enriched the lives of those around him. He gave them stories.

At the end the reader is left to decide what is real and what is tall-tale, and to ponder if perhaps knowing for sure doesn't matter all that much.

Other Blog Reviews:
A Fraternity of Dreamers
Here, There and Everywhere
A Striped Armchair

(Got any more? Let me know and I'll add your link)


  1. This sounds wonderful. I haven't read Big Fish though I am a huge fan of the film. I think part of the reason I haven't read the book...besides the fact that I have a huge pile of books to read...is that I did enjoy the movie so much and figured they would be nothing alike. I know, I'm odd.

    This sounds like a great excuse to check out Wallace's work though!

  2. This is the second time today that I came across a post that mentioned Daniel Wallace. I haven't read anything by Wallace. But, I think I should probably find something and remedy that situation. Any suggestions for a first read?

  3. Cool sounds very interesting. I am looking forward to reading Big Fish this year for our challenge and I hope I like it as much as you did.

  4. Like Carl, I haven't read Big Fish, but I fell in love with the movie. It was pure magic. Looks like I have yet another book to add to my TBR list!

  5. This one sounds interesting! I'm adding it to the list.

  6. Wonderful review, Nymeth! Now you've me hooked to this book... I'm going to add it to the wishlist.

  7. "At the end the reader is left to decide what is real and what is tall-tale, and to ponder if perhaps knowing for sure doesn't matter all that much."

    Don't you just love that? When it's done right, it can be really something special. Wonderful review, Nymeth.

  8. I KNEW you were gonna love this one!

  9. hells bells Nymeth! ask me if I need yet another book on my wish list? go ahead ask! NO! NOT! NADA!... but I can tell you this will probably be the next book I order...

    just fyi for Debi's "blame game".. this one is on YOU! grrrrrr lol

  10. Oh Nymeth...this sounds positively wonderful. I need more days in the week! And it wouldn't hurt if you'd write a lousy review now and then either. LOL Yep, this one's is definitely going on the old wish list.

    By the way, Max and I off to visit Pedrez again. :)

  11. Carl, that doesn't sound odd, I totally understand. And amazingly enough (amazing to me now that I've grown to love Wallace so much), the first time I read Big Fish I was disappointed. I was disappointed because, well, it was not the movie. But the second time around I fell in love with it. The movie expands the story a lot, while at the same time remaining true to what's at the book's core. It's not often that a movie adaptation does that so successfully!

    Lisa: I really really liked this one, but I liked Big Fish and The Watermelon King even more, so I'd recommend either one of those. Not that this wouldn't be a good introduction either.

    Rhinoa: I hope you do too!

    Stephanie: I love the movie too! I hope you enjoy his books :)

    Kim, I hope you enjoy it!

    Melody, I hope you enjoy both this and The Watermelon King!

    Literary Feline: I do love it! I saw some Amazon reviews in which people said they were frustrated with the ending for that reason, but for me it worked perfectly. I liked the lack of certainty. I think that, considering what the story does, what the story is all about, no other kind of ending would have felt right.

    Ken: You were right :P

    Deslily: lol :P I don't need more books on my wishlist either, but because of you all I add more almost every day :P

    Debi: lol :D Max is too cool for words. And hey, it's not my fault that I've been reading good books :P

  12. This reminds me that I need to put Watermelon King on my list of books to get. I think maybe my less than excited reaction to Big Fish was just a fluke given that I had seen the movie first. From what you write here and in other posts, his books sound fantastic!

  13. Trish, like I was telling Carl the same happened to me at first. Then I picked it up again because I was doing a project on it for a Literature and Cinema course, and it hit me that even though it was sparser it had the same magic the movie did. Plus I completely fell in love with the writing. I hope you enjoy his other books!


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