While Steven Galloway’s new novel deserves a read based simply on the merits of his masterful The Cellist of Sarajevo, Galloway gives readers something new and exciting with his latest work. The Confabulist is the story of Harry Houdini, and the man that killed him. Twice.
Galloway interweaves several story lines into his book, focusing on his two central characters and the different eras in which they lived. The lives of Houdini and Martin Strauss only cross briefly, but it is a moment that changes everything. Everybody knows the story of Houdini dying a few days after being unexpectedly punched in the stomach, but Galloway offers us a version of the “true” story, what really happened leading up to those events, and what happened to Strauss, after the moment that changed his life forever.
Strauss tells the story at various points in his life, from the time leading up to his encounter with Houdini, to the hidden life he had to live after, to his world as an old man, years after the incident. He is struck with tinnitus, an affliction where his ears ring incessantly, driving other people insane. He also has some confusion about his own past, as he occasionally is unable to determine what really happened to him, and what was a dream. Galloway brilliantly weaves his theme of appearances versus reality into his narrative, and uses it effectively to provide the readers with tension and surprise, all the way to the last page of the book. Strauss is pulled into a world of intrigue, one that he does not understand, and he spends the majority of the novel as a confused man, unsure of what has happened to him, and of someone who has a past, but really has no future.
The story of Houdini is exquisitely done. The author has taken real events, and spun them into his tale. Houdini, as we know, was the world’s most famous magician, escape artist, and illusionist. In a time before mass media, he was able to truly become world famous, his feats discussed by regular people all across the world. In The Confabulist, we learn of Houdini’s secrets, his dedication to his craft, and his bad side: that of being a womanizer who took his wife for granted time and time again.
But he also led a secret life. As a person of his fame, he garnered attention as a potential spy for the government, and his meetings and associations with the Romanovs of Russia made him a person of intrigue. His powers could place him next to world leaders, and his magic could possess the power to influence those who were deemed in need of some influencing. This provides an exciting story line, and the inclusion of such real characters as the Czar and Rasputin makes Galloway’s work an exciting mix of truth and fiction.
Houdini also takes on a personal mission, against those he calls the Spiritualists, because he believes that they take advantage of the grief that people feel for those who have died. The Spiritualists are mediums, those who claim to be able to speak to the dead. After dabbling in this life himself, Houdini sees how terrible it is to make money off the grief of others, and he becomes obsessed with stopping them, even getting to the point where he tries to influence lawmakers in to creating a bill making it illegal to perform such acts in exchange for money. This is the only part of the novel that slows down a little bit, but it plays an integral part in the development of the plot.
The Confabulist may not be as masterful a piece of literature as Cellist was, but it is a very exciting read, full of enough mystery and intrigue to keep you going until it is finished. At barely over 300 pages, it is a quick read as well, and Galloway’s simple, yet descriptive, prose lends to this readability. With such an interesting base story, this novel should appeal to readers of all types, as it need not be read only by people who were fascinated by Houdini. The story is much larger than that. It is a romance, a spy novel, a mystery, an action-packed thriller, an emotional journey, a novel of sickness. He blends genres so well, that it is difficult to picture this book not becoming a best seller. All of these things blend together so well, but the gift that Galloway possesses is that he doesn’t short change any of them. You don’t feel like you are ripped off any of the romantic side, because there is just the right amount, based on Strauss’ need to leave the love of his life, Clara, behind. Yet, at the same time, there is just enough of the other elements to leave you satisfied by the whole thing.
The ending of the book is also incredibly well constructed, as all of the stories are brought together, without leaving anything behind. Galloway does a great job of foreshadowing all of his events, to the point where you have expectations, but he veers away from predictability, and does it in a masterful manner.
The Confabulist is a great read, and I would highly recommend it. Even if you are not familiar with Galloway and his other work, this could be a great place to start. Surely, looking back on this year in literature, this novel could be seen as one of the books that most impeccably intertwines fun, adventure, and great story telling, all in one book.
By the end of the novel, you too will be wondering what is real, and what is fiction.
Get it. Read it. Enjoy.