The Confabulist

( 2 )

Overview

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

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Overview

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.

2014 Finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust of Canada Fiction Prize

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
02/24/2014
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)
From the Publisher
“Like a good magic trick, The Confabulist is so cleverly constructed that Galloway leaves you wondering: How did he do it?...It’s a beautifully wrought novel about the grip of illusion and the way we tell ourselves stories to seek redemption, or forgiveness at the very least.”—Washington Post

"Memory is a cagey friend: What we see is subjective, colored by what we want to believe. Such tension between wish and reality is employed to stunning effect in Steven Galloway’s new novel, The Confabulist. Intertwining the lives of the famous Houdini and a misfit named Martin Strauss, Galloway’s story has a big trick up its sleeve, but his talent is no illusion."—More

“As Galloway rightly notes — in beautiful passages on topics such as the meaning of love and the responsibilities of parenthood — just because something is fictional doesn't mean it isn't also real.”—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

"Fabulous . . . A page-turner you'll want to read twice.”—Readers Digest

"If contemporary literature is anything to go by, the golden age of magic was around the beginning of the 20th century.  It was the heyday of perhaps the most famous magician to have ever lived, one Mr. Harry Houdini, and it is with his story that the tale of The Confabulist begins.  Martin Strauss is not a name that anyone has heard, but his story is so tightly bound with Houdini’s that it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins.  It promises to mesmerize in the same way that The Night Circus did."—Book Riot

"As much as the novel is a stylish reimagining of Houdini’s biography, it is also a deep exploration of the meaning of magic. Houdini’s narrative serves as a lens through which Galloway examines our notions of truth and illusion, of reality and fiction, and our ability, or inability, to distinguish one from the other."—Bustle

"In this darkly fanciful take on the Houdini legend . . . the magician's life is recounted through the damaged memory of the fan who killed him with a punch to the stomach in 1926. . . . [Galloway's] his explorations of the relationships between truth and illusion, fiction and reality, need and conscience are stimulating and affecting. . . . An entertaining fictional reflection on the 20th century's most famous magician."—Kirkus

"A brilliant novel, and one that virtually demands multiple readings to pick up all the subtleties (especially concerning the end of the book, and enough said about that)."—Booklist (starred)

The Confabulist is a historical novel that is more relevant than ever today. What begins as a playful, mind-teasing mystery about Harry Houdini, the greatest magician who ever lived, turns subtly, brilliantly into a beautiful elegy on love and loss, identity and self-deception. Galloway, who is fast emerging as one of our finest young writers, has produced another novel to linger over, read and re-read, in order to glean all that it has to offer.”—Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd

“Galloway has always been an uncommonly gifted storyteller, and this is very much a novel about storytelling. It’s also a haunting exploration of sorrow and identity and illusion—and a beautifully calibrated full-length magic act.”—The Vancouver Sun

“Vancouver author Steven Galloway created literary magic with The Cellist of Sarajevo. . . . Now in his new novel, The Confabulist, Galloway makes magic again, this time of the literal, stage-show variety. . . . He takes fascinating true-life aspects of Houdini, mixes them with speculation and creates a memorable though not always likeable character. . . . Galloway has created ideal conditions for the exploration of reality vs. illusion, of real vs. false memories. . . . With Galloway’s elegant sleight-of-hand, [The Confabulist] is as finely crafted as the most intricate magic trick, right to the revelatory conclusion. Whether or not it’s the ending you anticipate, you’re likely to think, after any clever illusion, ‘Amazing. How did he do that?’ ” —Toronto Star

“[Houdini is] the star of the book. . . . He is such a fascinating individual, well described in Galloway’s novel. . . . Galloway is naturally drawn to real figures or the ‘real-life moment.’ And to realize his work he did a lot of research.”—Ottawa Citizen

“Memory, which is at the heart of [Steven] Galloway’s new novel, is perhaps the most remarkable magic trick there is. . . . The Confabulist, Galloway’s eagerly anticipated fourth novel, is itself a trick, too, an impressive feat of close-up magic from one of the country’s most talented young literary conjurors. . . . It’s a delightful, delirious narrative that hinges on a kick-ass supposition . . . that, once started, is as difficult to escape from as one of the straitjackets used in [Houdini’s] death-defying stunts.”—National Post

“A fantastical new tale that interlaces history with imagination.”—The Globe and Mail

“Colourful. . . . Galloway builds intrigue by mixing the personal and the political. . . . Readers looking for the innocent pleasures of a good smoke-and-mirrors mystery will be amply rewarded.”—Quill & Quire

Kirkus Reviews
2014-04-03
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594631962
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/1/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 690,452
  • 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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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

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.

ABOUT STEVEN GALLOWAY

Steven Galloway lives in British Columbia and teaches creative writing at the University of British Coumbia.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • The Confabulist ultimately poses the question can we trust our memories to provide an accurate record of what has actually happened to us in our lives? What do you think the answer is? Did the book make you think differently about your own memories of your past and how accurate they might be, how others might have remembered the same events differently?
  • Have you ever known anyone with an illness that affected his or her memory? Did the novel in any way change your understanding of that experience?
  • At what point did you realize that Martin's relationship to Houdini might not be as he was remembering it? Which of the Martin-Clara memories do you think really happened and which were unintentionally invented?
  • As The Confabulist makes clear, magic tricks take advantage of the human mind's tendency to make assumptions and become distracted. How does Steven Galloway employ these techniques in telling the story of Martin and his relationship with Houdini? Do you see how the Houdini story in the book is its own kind of magic trick, and Martin, as narrator, is our unwitting magician?
  • What is Alice's true relationship to Martin? What parallels do you think Alice sees between Martin, as she has known and remembers him, and the version of Houdini he shares with her?
  • What role does history play in The Confabulist? Where is the line drawn about what history knows for a fact about Houdini, about what some people suspect, and about what Martin's mind invented? Are there clear distinctions? In this way, might it be possible to compare our public understanding of history with our personal understanding of our memories of ourselves?
  • The idea of secrets is threaded throughout The Confabulist. How does keeping a secret change how you interact with the people around you? How does it change your relationship to what the truth really is? Think not only in terms of the book, when answering, but also beyond it.
  • Think about the larger implications of false memory. In what way can false memory be destructive? In what way can it be something positive?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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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

    Magical

    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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