Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Juli­enne Isaacs

STEVEN Galloway is a mas­ter sto­ry­teller. The crit­i­cally ac­claimed (2008), a nov­el­iza­tion of real-life events set dur­ing the siege of Sara­jevo in the 1990s, quickly be­came an in­ter­na­tional best­seller and the kind of book that trav­els from hand to hand un­til the cover is worn ragged. His­tory, in the wrong hands, can dry up into lists — dates, names, num­bers. Part of magic lies in Galloway’s abil­ity to spin story gold out of the raw ma­te­ri­als of the past. Galloway sets his shoul­der to the wheel of time again with The Con­fab­u­list, a fic­tional med­i­ta­tion on the life of Harry Hou­dini, and the man who killed him (twice), Martin Strauss. In al­ter­nat­ing, non-lin­ear chap­ters, Galloway flips from Hou­dini’s to Strauss’s time­lines in re­lat­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­count of Hou­dini’s life — and death. As Strauss is telling the tale, it’s as much his story as it is Hou­dini’s. But from the first pages of the novel, when a present-day Strauss is told he is suf­fer­ing from tin­ni­tus and a de­gen­er­a­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion that will ren­der his mem­o­ries ques­tion­able, The Con­fab­u­list’s nar­ra­tion takes a turn for the un­trust­wor­thy. Strauss is a clas­sic anti-hero with a long list of dodgy qual­i­ties, from a weak­ness for sub­stance abuse to crip­pling pas­siv­ity. But as flawed he­roes are far more in­ter­est­ing than un­touch­able ones, the mis­er­able Strauss quickly locks down the reader’s sym­pa­thies. To make things even more de­light­ful, Strauss per­son­ally views him­self as an hon­ourable bard, re­lat­ing the truest ver­sion of events: “The only way is to start at the be­gin­ning and tell it as I be­lieve it to be, not as I want it to be,” he as­serts earnestly. The tale he re­lates is ex­tra­or­di­nary in­deed. Stripped to fac­tual bare bones, Hou­dini’s bi­og­ra­phy is fas­ci­nat­ing. The child of im­mi­grant par­ents, Hou­dini strug­gled for years to es­tab­lish him­self as a ma­gi­cian, un­til his bet­ter-than-usual abil­i­ties with sleight of hand and a ge­nius for locks re­vamped his ca­reer — as an es­cape artist. With his tiny, lovely wife, Bess, Hou­dini trav­elled the world per­form­ing won­ders, un­til a fa­tal blow to the ab­domen car­ried him be­yond the fi­nal cur­tain. It’s al­ready a good story, but Galloway has no prob­lem jazz­ing it up even more. In Strauss’s ver­sion of events, Hou­dini is a spy who bedaz­zles the Ro­manovs with his “mag­i­cal” abil­i­ties and be­fud­dles the chief of Rus­sia’s se­cret po­lice with seem­ingly mirac­u­lous escapes. Not only that, he be­comes the avowed en­emy of a net­work of power-hun­gry spir­i­tu­al­ists, Arthur Co­nan Doyle among them, un­til they be­gin to seek his life in pay­ment for the trou­ble he’s caused. In an af­ter­word, Galloway writes that both Hou­dini’s and Doyle’s words are drawn from the his­tor­i­cal record, so The Con­fab­u­list does have its ac­cu­rate el­e­ments — for ex­am­ple, the ma­gi­cian’s beef with spir­i­tu­al­ists’ par­lour tricks in ma­nip­u­lat­ing emo­tion to amp up their il­lu­sions. As the pages turn, how­ever, The Con­fab­u­list be­gins to feel more and more com­plex and un­re­li­able as a his­tor­i­cal ac­count. As the nar­ra­tive strands be­come tan­gled — Strauss’s life and loves, Hou­dini’s escapes — ve­rac­ity is ex­changed for colourful il­lu­sion. While Galloway’s writ­ing is clear to a fault and his nicely timed pac­ing keeps up the story’s mo­men­tum, The Con­fab­u­list errs on the side of lev­ity rather than grav­ity, which cheats the reader of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some of the real drama in­her­ent in Hou­dini’s re­mark­able life. Oc­ca­sion­ally cum­ber­some flash­backs and long pas­sages of back­story, as well as the novel’s com­plex non-lin­ear struc­ture, can also have a be­wil­der­ing ef­fect. But the trou­bled Strauss has some beau­ti­ful things to say about mem­ory and the role of truth-telling in un­der­stand­ing il­lu­sions — and real life. “At the end of the past and the present is the fu­ture,” he says. “It never re­ally comes but it’s there all the same, this sup­posed place we will some­day get to. But the fu­ture is ei­ther our own death or the ex­is­tence of magic.” Can you trust ma­gi­cians? Can you trust sto­ry­tellers? Does it mat­ter? The Con­fab­u­list never re­ally closes the case on these ques­tions. The reader is left to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that deep truths can be com­mu­ni­cated even through sto­ries that are full of holes.

Juli­enne Isaacs is a Win­nipeg-based writer and edi­tor.

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