Art & Culture Journalism REVIEWS & CRITIQUES

BOOK REVIEW: A Critique of Dawn Powell’s 1936 Novel “Turn, Magic Wheel”

“Turn, Magic Wheel” by Dawn Powell is most hailed for its edgy, satirical portrayal of the Manhattan literary scene of the 1930s. Powell covers all her bases: the seedy underbelly of New York nightlife with its scotch-soaked bars and promiscuous honeys, the bourgeois upper-crust with its cucumber-infused punch and silver-platter sandwiches, the vapid gossip darlings, love triangles, and ego-centric publishers…even the city is a character with its taxi-lined curbs and rain-streaked windows. Powell describes all of these things in exquisite detail with pulsing energy. It is no surprise then, that Powell is praised for her Fitzgerald-esque snapshot of Manhattan. This is all fine and dandy.

However, I found the true gifts of “Turn, Magic Wheel” elsewhere, in the more-human and timeless themes: The illusiveness of love; the blissful lure of nostalgia; the armor we use to guard our hearts and avoid being vulnerable; the public facades we carefully construct and compartmentalize; true love and acceptance found in friendship; the scathing burn of jealousy; and how the truth stings. These themes give the book heart and soul. The rest, to me, is just well-described backdrop.

Effie Callingham is clearly the heartbeat of the novel. When her husband Andy — a well-known author — fled oversees with the more vibrant, young Marian, Effie grasped on to her identity as Mrs. Andrew Callingham. For 15 years she has kept his name, benefiting from the admiration of artists and curious men. Mrs. Andrew Callingham is well defined as “naive, shy, blushing, a target for sarcasm, apologetic, inferior to all in wit, beauty or intelligence.” But who is the real Effie Thorne, without Andy Callingham?

She is a woman prone to long flights of fantasy, drifting off to the golden days in her mind when she and Andy were madly in love. She is a woman caught between two versions of herself (the one with Andy, and the one without). She is a woman that holds herself tightly, terrified of being vulnerable, lest she be hurt again.

Effie’s one friend and confidant is Dennis, a much younger, aspiring writer. Dennis is fascinated by Effie. He secretly uses her life and Andy-obsession as inspiration for his new book, which portrays Andy as a two-timing, pompous ass and Effie as a woman living a drawn-out lie. When the book exposes her, the betrayal threatens Effie and Dennis’ friendship. But it also forces Effie to swallow some unpalatable truths about herself.

Remorse haunts Dennis the way the memory of Andy haunts Effie. While Effie drifts off into times past, Dennis drifts off into the pages of his book, measuring his portrayal against reality. There is a frequent tension between the imagined and the real in both of their lives. In the end, however, they must both face reality, and themselves. There, they find that their friendship was more valuable than either had given it credit for.

Each chapter of Turn, Magic Wheel has its own pace and rhythm. Effie’s chapters, for example, are flowered with lavish descriptions that could easily stand on their own as poetry. Quick-fire, witty dialogue marks those chapters in bars and amongst Dennis’ publishers. Throughout, Powell’s descriptions bring life even to the inanimate: chairs “crouch in corners,” raindrops bounce like dice, telephone booths stare, busses snort, the clouds are “tiny popcorn-balls bubbling beneath the surface of the sky.”

Like Effie and Dennis’, Powell’s imagination creates characters and worlds that are rich, complex, and often humorous. The timeless themes, however, are what push the book beyond rich description, to a novel with substance.