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The Confabulist: A Novel Hardcover – May 1, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Confabulation is the invention of imaginary memories to compensate for memory loss. It’s not lying because the confabulist is not aware the memories are false. This fascinating novel is narrated by Martin Strauss, who confesses to two things: he is the man who killed Harry Houdini (twice), and he suffers from a degenerative condition that affects his brain’s ability to store memories. Strauss tells a fascinating story about the unknown Houdini: stage magician—sure, we all know that—but also a secret spy for the U.S. Treasury Department, advisor to the American military, confidant of a Russian spy, faker of his own death. Strauss’ story so cleverly mixes historical fact with fiction that it is virtually impossible to separate the two (and, remember, Strauss believes it’s all true). Author Galloway will often take a real event, such as Houdini’s escape from a prison transport in Moscow, and layer on fictional elements, but it’s done so seamlessly that it’d be easy to think the whole episode really happened (as Strauss, in fact, does). The book’s title itself could easily apply either to Strauss (for obvious reasons) or to Houdini himself, whose escape-artist persona, even his name, was an embellishment of the real man. 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). --David Pitt


“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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; First Edition edition (May 1, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594631964
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594631962
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #890,615 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Steven Galloway was born in Vancouver, and raised in Kamloops, British Columbia. He attended the University College of the Cariboo and the University of British Columbia. His debut novel, Finnie Walsh, was nominated for the in Canada First Novel Award. His second novel, Ascension, was nominated for the BC Book Prizes' Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and has been translated into numerous languages. His third novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, was published in spring of 2008. It was heralded as "the work of an expert" by the Guardian, and has become an international bestseller with rights sold in 20 countries. Galloway has taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Miss Barbara TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 4, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Confabulist is a fictionalized retelling of the life of Harry Houdini from the pen of Steven Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo. The narrator, Martin Strauss, opens the book by proclaiming “I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.” Strauss represents the personage of the man who in 1926 punched Houdini and ruptured his appendix which supposedly caused his death a couple of days later. In this book Houdini’s death is open for speculation.

Strauss, believing Houdini to be alive, hopes to unravel this mystery and find Houdini’s whereabouts as he, himself, is being pursued by a cadre of conspirators out to muzzle him. The book is wildly fascinating and filled with the back story of Harry Houdini’s rise to fame. The reader is privy to the chronicles dealing with the construction of the Great Illusions and the history of why and how he sought to expose the Mediums and Quack Pretenders that were so popular at that time early in the 20th Century.

Galloway tells a speculative tale with an alternate Houdini from the one we think we know. Was he a spy for Britain and the USA? How do Arthur Conan Doyle and the head of Scotland Yard enter into this tale? What is the connection to the House of Romanov? I don’t think I ever totally “bought in” to the conjecture fabricated by the author but I certainly enjoyed the telling. I’m going to recommend this book to my library reading group.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Quixote010 VINE VOICE on March 6, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A confabulist can perhaps be defined as a person who likes to talk... to weave tales...perhaps to compensate for a loss of memory.

And thus author Steven Galloway weaves a fascinating tale about one of the country's best known men: Harry Houdini.

When Martin Strauss discovers he is losing his awareness...and mental capacity, he recalls the life of 20th Century icon Harry Houdini, perhaps once the most well-known person in world. At the turn of the century, Houdini amazed and fascinated crowds who attended his vaudeville-like shows to see him perform magic tricks and escape from the "inescapable". Strauss' connection to Houdini is that he is the young man who struck the magician after Houdini boasted of his abdominal strength. Houdini died within days from a ruptured appendix.

Suffering from years of guilt, and harboring a code Houdini skillfully placed in the young man's pocket before the fatal blow, Strauss narrates the life of Ehrich Weiss (Houdini's real name) as he moves from the small local stage to the palaces of the world. Along the way, Galloway suggests that Weiss (Houdini) supposedly was involved in espionage, and, of course, later trying to disprove those who said they communicated with the other world... a reference to the spiritual beings many in the 1920s sought. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a friend of Houdini was one of those and is woven into the tale.

I found the book quite entertaining and particularly enjoyed the explanations regarding magic, his honed skills to escape from locks and locked places, and Houdini's adept usage of his personal physical prowess in his act.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 14, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Steven Galloway is not only a talented writer, he is an exceptionally clever one, as he proves in this novel, playing around with the whole question of what is illusion and what is reality.

Harry Houdini, one of Galloway's two narrator/protagonists, deals with that openly: his life is about presenting illusions as spectacle, and yet debunking them as mere sleight of hand. There is no magic, he argues; there are no ghosts and those who pretend to commune with the dead are simply charlatans. Then there is Galloway's other narrator, the unknown Martin Strauss, who tells us with almost his first words that he killed Harry Houdini: twice. What could he have meant? Can we trust him? After all, he has just visited a physician who has told him that he suffers from a degenerative memory disease. What does reality and illusion mean to Martin?

Martin seems to have as clear an idea and set of memories as does Houdini, and when they intersect, real drama sparks. But it's not until the final few chapters that all becomes clear, and here -- as has been the case with a few other books I've read recently, such as Ian MacEwan's "Sweet Tooth", the author has reserved for himself some crucial piece of knowledge until those final pages without which little of what comes before makes full and complete sense. Or at least, our understanding of it all will be dramatically altered: not until that revelation will we finally understand what is reality and what has been illusion all along.

And that is a large part of the reason for my relatively low rating. Admittedly, while I love Galloway's prose, I also found the narrative slow going and not as engaging as I had hoped: a bit like watching a slow-motion tennis match between two players about whom you don't care all that much.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 12, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Readers who know Steven Galloway from his beautiful CELLIST OF SARAJEVO will not find anything of its poetry or political relevance here. But Galloway does not attempt that. This is a fast-moving historical novel full of color and detail, and encapsulating a narrative mystery of its own. I read it in a single day (aided by long periods in doctors' waiting rooms) and could not put it down. Besides, with a novel whose short prologue ends "I didn't just kill Harry Houdini; I killed him twice," who could resist?

Before I started, I had only a general impression of Houdini's career as a magician and escape artist, and am glad that I didn't check further until afterwards. For Galloway's account of how a Jewish immigrant named Ehrich Weisz became the great Houdini is fascinating, as are his accounts of his various tricks and growing theatrical successes in North America and Europe. He is especially good on the psychology of illusion, how making a person believe one thing is a carefully-prepared matter of suggestion and misdirection. In this version, Houdini soon finds himself working for the American Secret Service and a parallel organization in Britain; I felt slightly less comfortable when the action moves to matters of political intrigue in the Romanov court, but Galloway does a fine job of taking known facts and extrapolating between the lines.

Galloway begins his account of Houdini's career with an episode in which he tricks a grieving couple by pretending he has a message from their recently deceased child. Almost immediately, he rejects this lapse in judgment, and at the end of his career he mounts a national campaign to debunk fraudulent spiritualists.
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