The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

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The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A story about reality versus illusion as Martin Strauss believes he killed arch escapologist Harry Houdini not once, but twice. An intriguing tale but the most intriguing part being the true life of Houdini himself.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Atlantic Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1782393993

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Martin Strauss has an unusual affliction that causes him to reinvent his life from false memories, convincing even himself. As a confabulist he's unsure of his past and whether he actually had a happy relationship with the woman he loved. But there is one thing of which he's convinced: he killed the famous Ehrich Weiss twice. You've not heard of Ehrich Weiss? Oh but you have for Ehrich was Harry Houdini, the best escapologist (among other things) that the world has ever known.

Canadian author Steven Galloway author of the exemplary highly acclaimed (i.e. I loved it!) The Cellist of Sarajevo has taken a different tack entirely for his fourth novel. This time he looks at veracity versus illusion through the strongly held beliefs of a fictional confabulist Martin Strauss and (stranger than fiction) the real life of Harry H.

The chapters alternate leaving me to admit I found Houdini's biographical chapters more compelling than the fictional life of Martin. Perhaps it would be different for those who know of Harry's endeavours and intriguing private world but for me the revelations make such compelling reading that, if they alone populated the book, it would rate a 5*.

It isn't just the suspense involved in his trickery that attracted me either. The episodes about the sadness of the Weiss' marriage, what it did to his wife, his womanising and the consequences of his connections with the secret service are absolutely riveting. I actually found myself checking the facts as I went along since there were moments that read like a fictionalised thriller. However, the Houdini chapters are all based on well researched fact and learned opinion right down to the theory that Steven offers about Houdini's death. On the other hand, Strauss tells his own story drawing us into a world woven by a man who mistakenly believes every word he says and every moment he recounts.

A magic illusion comes in three parts: the pledge where the equipment is shown to the audience, the turn or trick itself and the final revealing act. This is the way that Steven has chosen to write Martin's life, giving it an ethereal Beautiful Mind feel.

Although fascinating at first, after a while I found Martin's self-obsession wearing (unfair of me as it's a symptom of his illness) and yearned to return to the escapologist's tale. However this may be just as much a reflection on how Steven's writing about Harry grabbed me rather than any aspersion cast on poor Martin.

The interesting thing is that if we fossick through Strauss' memories not all are totally fictitious. He may not have been present during some of them, but they definitely happened. The pinnacle of these was the wonderful idea that Houdini's long suffering wife had after Harry's death for a special tea party. I'll leave the details for you to discover but I defy anyone not to cheer at her style and chutzpah.

Although people like Christopher Priest (in his novel Prestige) have used the three stage conjuring metaphor on which to hang their story, Steven's twist and choice of historical subject gives it an original flourish. Would I be marking as high if I was already a Houdini expert? Possibly not but coming to the subject as a newbie means I not only enjoyed the book, I'm dying to learn more. Ok, perhaps not dying exactly, but you know what I mean!

(Thank you, Altantic Books, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you haven't read it, do give The Cellist of Sarajevo a try. If you've already relished it or are more into the Houdini vibe, we also recommend The Harry Houdini Mysteries: The Dime Museum Murders by Daniel Stashower.

Buy The Confabulist by Steven Galloway at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Confabulist by Steven Galloway at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Confabulist by Steven Galloway at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Confabulist by Steven Galloway at Amazon.com.


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