The Magus by John Fowles

11th January 2012

Received this summer from the fabulous Sean at Read Heavily.

Nicholas Urfe is mediocre and bored with his life in England. After multiple affairs with messy endings, he takes a teaching job on a remote island in Greece, but before he leaves, the previous instructor gives him a cryptic warning: “Beware of the waiting room.”

Once on Phraxos, Nicko’s old habits catch up to him, and he’s once again bored until he comes across Mr. Conchis (pronounced, oddly enough, like “conscious”) and the forewarned waiting room. Mr. Conchis, or the magus, challenges every thought Nicholas has ever had, frightening him and forcing him to play a game without parameters and in which there is no true winner.

You know how in movies people go in fun houses except they’re not really fun because someone is totally going to die in the fun house? The Magus. And you silently yell at the character not to go into the fun house, but they do it anyway? Nicholas Urfe.

This is an incredibly difficult book to explain because oh lord, it’s exactly like walking in a fun house. You go in and everything seems innocent and slightly fun, and then what you know is turned on its head. The biggest lesson of the fun house and The Magus? You cannot be sure of anything.

As I read The Magus, I had the oddest and most unnerving feeling I’ve ever experienced, and I must say it was much more terrifying than the scariest book I’ve ever read. Because as Mr. Conchis plays with Nicholas’ ideas of reality, so too does he play with the reader’s. Mr. Conchis initially tells the story of Lily, a woman he loved and lost to death, and by the time “Lily” appears, it was so expected and anticipated – yet eerie and unreal – that I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. Nicholas reacts in much the same way and the more Conchis unsettles what Nicholas knows to be real, the less Nicholas is sure that anything is real. At the same time I silently begged Nicholas not to return to the lair of Mr. Conchis, I also urged him forward, eager to see what hellish turn or conclusion there might be.

The book jacket describes the novel as “a maze, a dark door,” and I agree. Much like a fun house, a maze is something fairly innocuous. It is in the inevitable failure to find our way out that the maze becomes something other than a puzzle, the monster under the bed, or the ghost in the attic. In The Magus, Fowles attempts to undo all civilized, organized belief systems and ways of thinking in order to push the reader into somewhere beyond, into a waiting room of sorts that, if you are willing to constantly question yourself and your surrounding, you may or may not ever leave. Because outside the walls of the maze, are we really any less restricted or sure of our way?

Fascinating and petrifying, this novel is a must read for students of philosophy or those who love intellectual thrillers.

Other reviews:

Potter’s Book Blog





  • This was the first Fowles I read, and I was definitely swept away by it. It was exhausting, but also so accessible, and I think that’s a difficult trick to pull off well, and I thought Fowles did it quite well. Your fun-house analogy hits the mark exactly.

    • You are so right. It really is an exhausting novel. As I told @readheavily on Twitter, it’s a singular reading experience.

  • Anonymous

    Uhg, I HATE fun houses. This book sounds really scary. =/

    • It’s weird, though, Tash. No one is killed. There’s no murderer lurking. It’s just extremely unsettling.

  • Anonymous

    Love this review! I always think Fowles’ books sounds SO interesting, I really wish that I hadn’t had such mixed results with his books in the past. I read The Collector last year (which I think you would love: so creepy!), but prior to that I had struggled to read The French Lieutenant’s Woman several times and just couldn’t make it past the first 40 pages. So now I’m a bit scared of him as I’ve only had a 50% success rate. This one sounds too good to pass up, though!

    • Thanks, Steph! It’s certainly an odd one. I wouldn’t say it’s a favorite, but it has certainly stuck with me in vivid detail, so I think that says a lot.

      As for The Collector, I’ve heard it’s super creepy. Not sure if I can do that. I’m such a scaredy cat, though I did watch Law & Order: SVU by myself after dark last weekend. Maybe I can do it…

  • A friend gave me a copy of The Magus a few years ago and I *loved* it. I even went out and found the original version in a used book store, but I never re-read it to figure out what Fowles had changed.

    Great review!

    *New Follower*

    • Brooks! Thanks so much for the follow and the comment. I’m glad you put “loved” like that. It’s a deeply interesting book, but it’s not one I can claim to love. However, as I mentioned to Steph, it has kept me thinking, and I read it weeks ago. I wonder if there is a Cliffs’ Notes to tell us what the differences are. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • This book sounds really good! I love intellectual thrillers! I’m going to have to add this one to my TBR list. Great review and thanks for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks, ma’am! It is definitely fascinating and an intellectual thriller at that. Let me know if you read it (or I’ll probably see it on your Shelfari). I’d love to hear someone else’s thoughts.