You may remember Steven Galloway’s name from a few years back when The Cellist of Sarajevo was published. Beautifully written, it’s a poignant novel which offered readers a glimpse of the life under siege that we’d seen playing out surreally on our TV screens only a few years before. It became a massive bestseller, and deservedly so. Like all the best writers, Galloway has turned his attention to something completely different in The Confabulist which tells the story of Houdini and the man who killed him twice.
Martin Strauss is fascinated by magic and illusion. He’s studied the mechanics behind the showmanship, the way in which an audience colludes with the magician willing the illusion to be real, and the sheer hard work that it takes to bring both collusion and illusion about. Houdini, the greatest of magicians, is his hero but Martin holds himself responsible for Houdini’s demise. Martin’s own story – his determination to tell the truth about Houdini to the magician’s daughter before his own memory is consumed – is woven through what turns into a twisty tale of espionage and counter-espionage, trickery and treachery, and, of course, magic and illusion. Once a cheap, vaudeville illusionist willing to make a dollar from conning bereaved parents using spiritualist tricks, Houdini works his way to international stardom helped along by the spymaster who sees a use for his escapology skills and ability to make audiences believe the seemingly impossible. His celebrity takes him to Scotland Yard, the home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Russian imperial court but when he begins a crusade against spiritualism he puts himself in terrible danger.
An immense mount of careful research has gone into this book – there are tips about picking locks should you need them, tricks are explained and escapes demystified – but once the story takes off it’s riveting. Galloway’s characterisation of Houdini is a triumph: a deeply flawed man, driven by celebrity, unable to resist a pretty woman yet haunted by the moment he understood the pain inflicted by spiritualism. By having Martin diagnosed with a neurological condition which fabricates memories to fill the gaps left by the loss of his own Galloway has invented the quintessential unreliable narrator. It’s such a clever book, a magnificent illusion in itself, whose final twist is kept under wraps until the very end. That’s all I’m going to say, and I do hope it’s not too much.