Tag Archives: The Confabulist

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Outsiders to Wise Children #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders which I’ve not read but I know this story of teenage rebellion is considered to be a classic of young adult fiction.

Albert Camus’ The Outsider is also thought of as a classic. It’s about Meursault who refuses to conform to society’s expectations showing no emotion when his mother dies or remorse at an act of violence he commits.

The Outsider is also translated as The Stranger which takes me to Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger set in a crumbling, haunted mansion lived in by the same family for two centuries. Not my favourite Waters. I much prefer Fingersmith for its brilliant twist.

Which leads me to Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist about a man fascinated by magic and illusion who is convinced he’s responsible for Houdini’s death. It’s such a clever book, a magnificent illusion in itself, whose final twist is kept under wraps until the very end.

Steven Galloway also wrote The Cellist of Sarajevo leading me to Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You which I’ve yet to read but I know it’s about a young boy who finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher.

Patrick Gale’s father was governor of HM Prison Camp Hill on the Isle of Wight. Patrick McGrath grew up close to another secure institution: Broadmoor Hospital where his father was the medical superintendent. His novels often explores madness, of which The Wardrobe Mistress set against the backdrop of the London theatre, is one of my favourites.

Angela Carter’s Wise Children shares a theatrical backdrop with The Wardrobe Mistress. It’s a tale of unacknowledged paternity, mistaken identities, twins at every turn, Shakespeare, Hollywood, music hall, discarded wives, glorious love and rollicking good times. A wonderful novel packed with Shakespearean references, a plot worthy of one of the Comedies and written in language which is earthy, vivid and memorable

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a teen classic to a tale of theatrical dynasty. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

The Confabulist by Steven Galloway: A very clever bit of business

The ConfabulistYou 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.