The Confabulist: A Novel

( 2 )


From the author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, an exciting new novel that uses the life and sudden death of Harry Houdini to weave a tale of magic, intrigue, and illusion.

What is real and what is an illusion? Can you trust your memory to provide an accurate record of what has happened in your life?

The Confabulist is a clever , entertaining, and suspenseful narrative that weaves together the rise and fall of world-famous Harry Houdini with the ...

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The Confabulist: A Novel

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From the author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, an exciting new novel that uses the life and sudden death of Harry Houdini to weave a tale of magic, intrigue, and illusion.

What is real and what is an illusion? Can you trust your memory to provide an accurate record of what has happened in your life?

The Confabulist is a clever , entertaining, and suspenseful narrative that weaves together the rise and fall of world-famous Harry Houdini with the surprising story  of Martin Strauss, an unknown man whose fate seems forever tied to the magician’s in a way that will ultimately  startle and amaze. It is at once a vivid portrait of an alluring, late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century world; a front-row seat to a world-class magic show; and an unexpected love story. In the end, the book is a kind of magic trick in itself: there is much more to Martin than meets the eye.

Historically rich and ingeniously told, this is a novel about magic and memory, truth and illusion, and the ways that love, hope, grief, and imagination can—for better or for worse—alter what we perceive and believe.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
From the author of The Cellist of Sarajevo comes this colorful but hard-to-swallow reimagining of Harry Houdini’s life and death. The book opens with narrator Martin Strauss asserting, “I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.” Strauss is Galloway’s fictionalized version of the young man who famously punched the famed illusionist in the stomach at a theater in Montreal in 1926, rupturing Houdini’s appendix, which caused his death two days later. Or did it? The hypothesis that Houdini may have survived is the book’s biggest (and most outrageous) conceit—one that may test readers’ patience and credulity. As Martin pursues the “dead” Houdini while trying to evade conspirators who want him silenced, evocative flashbacks limn Houdini’s rise to stardom, his great illusions, and his crusade to expose mediums and other charlatans. All this is well-trod ground, but what is different is the use Galloway makes of a recent idea in Houdini lore: that he worked for U.S. and British intelligence—“the skills of a magician and the skills of a spy were nearly identical.” Galloway makes this notion somewhat believable, but the basic premise of this stylish but convoluted novel—Houdini’s survival—remains difficult to accept. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
In this darkly fanciful take on the Houdini legend by the acclaimed author of The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008), the magician's life is recounted through the damaged memory of the fan who killed him with a punch to the stomach in 1926. The ultimate in unreliable narrators, Martin Strauss, a magic expert, suffers from a rare condition in which his brain invents new memories to replace lost ones. According to him, Houdini actually survived the appendix-rupturing gut punch and went into hiding. Obsessed with finding "the most famous person on the planet," Strauss is stalked by nefarious sorts himself. Shadowy flashbacks to Houdini's secret alternative life as an agent for U. S. and British intelligence explain this chain of events. The novel also examines Houdini's friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, a devout believer in spiritualism, through whom the nonbelieving Houdini—nee Ehrich Weiss, son of a rabbi—meets his match: Boston medium Margery Crandon, seductive head of a ring of spiritualists which controls the U. S. Congress. Much of the material pertaining to Houdini's rise to fame is familiar, though the way he discounts and offhandedly explains his tricks and escapes is amusing. Galloway's inventions can sometimes be a bit of a stretch, but his explorations of the relationships between truth and illusion, fiction and reality, need and conscience are stimulating and affecting. It's only too bad he feels the need to state those themes so explicitly: "There's no way to know whether anything we have seen or experienced is real or imagined"; "A memory isn't a finished product, it's a work in progress," et al. An entertaining fictional reflection on the 20th century's most famous magician that probably shouldn't be the first book one reads on the subject.
Library Journal
To confabulate, according to Merriam-Webster, is to fill in the blanks in one's memory by fabricating. If one repeats the lie often enough, does it then become truth? In this engaging novel, based loosely on the life of Harry Houdini, Canadian author Galloway (The Cellist of Sarajevo) challenges readers to distinguish between illusion and reality through the metaphor of magic. The story centers on narrator Martin Strauss, diagnosed with a degenerative disease that affects memory, as he struggles to recall, and atone for, the fateful night that he and the great magician first crossed paths. Martin and his lover Clara were attending Houdini's performance in Montreal when a confluence of circumstances resulted in Martin's delivering the sucker punch to Houdini's gut that would lead to his death from a ruptured appendix. Confused and guilt ridden, Martin abandons Clara and becomes obsessed with meeting Houdini's widow, Bess, to make amends. VERDICT Like a magician, Galloway embeds enough curveballs and red herrings in his narrative to keep readers on unsteady footing throughout, as they circle back to reread a chapter, trying to decipher what is real and what is illusion. This blending of fact and fiction is reminiscent of work by E.L. Doctorow or Colum McCann, ensuring interest for both history and mystery buffs. [See Prepub Alert, 11/3/13.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594631962
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 5/1/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 302,105
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.90 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Galloway lives in British Columbia and teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, which was an IndieBound and a Barnes and Noble Discover selection and has been chosen for community reads across the country.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 28, 2014

    The Confabulist is the fourth novel by Canadian author, Steven G

    The Confabulist is the fourth novel by Canadian author, Steven Galloway. Martin Strauss admits upfront to being an unreliable narrator; after all, his doctor has just told him “Yours is a rare condition in which the damage that is being done to your brain does not destroy cognitive function but instead affects your brain’s ability to store and process memories. In response to this, your brain will invent new memories.” The reader does well to keep this in mind as Martin tells the tale of his encounter, as a young man, with the famous Harry Houdini, an encounter that ends with him causing Houdini’s death. Or does it? Martin tells us “I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.” Intriguing, to say the least. Galloway weaves many known facts and real people from Houdini’s life into his novel, bringing to life historical facts and anecdotes whilst constructing his mystery. The narration switches between Martin’s life in the present day, Martin’s life in 1926 and 1927, and details of incidents in Houdini’s life. Just as in any good magic show, the reader is left wondering what, precisely, is fact and what is illusion, no doubt exactly as Galloway intended. As well as enthralling the reader with accounts and explanations of Houdini’s tricks, Martin’s version of Houdini’s life includes the Secret Service, Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, the Russian secret police, Russian nobility, séances and spiritualists, kidnap and coercion, diaries in code, a Congress Judiciary Subcommittee, spies and thieves, murder and a mystery daughter. Martin’s mother offers advice long after she departs this world, providing a source of both wisdom and humour. Galloway explores the nature of truth: “…truth wasn’t easily identifiable. You could spot a lie, but the opposite of a lie wasn’t always the truth”; of parenthood: “Being a parent is a monumental thing. You shape reality for another person. You cannot be an illusion”; and of memory: “A memory isn’t a finished product, it’s a work in progress” and “What is a memory anyway, other than a ghost of something that’s been gone for a long time?”  This novel is imaginative, intriguing and ultimately, very moving. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2014


    This is a wonderful book about what we think is real and what is not. Kept me reading straight through.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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