Illusion and reality mingle in The Confabulist

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      The Confabulist

      By Steven Galloway. Knopf Canada, 320 pp, hardcover

      Martin Strauss, the chief narrator of Steven Galloway’s fourth novel, The Confabulist, is afflicted with a rare psychological condition that invents and plants new memories. That his recollections are unreliable requires the reader to willfully ignore historical facts.

      “This is what has always captivated me about magic—the idea that we can create something that seems both real and impossible,” Martin observes. “That we could be two things at once without fully knowing which is material and which is a reflection.”

      Perception and time are key to this tale of two men separately longing for affirmation while ensnared by their own recklessness and imagination. Spanning the late 19th century to the present day, it alternates between the trajectories of Martin and the famed escape artist Harry Houdini and reveals the ways that reminiscence can gild, or taint, the past, present, and future.

      The novel’s supposition that Houdini served as an informant to the American secret service and Scotland Yard provides much of its momentum; throughout his performing career, he travelled North America and Europe, captivating audiences with shackles and vanishing elephants, and on these pages reluctantly supplied intelligence on Russia and Germany. This plot line is twined to the story of Martin’s early adulthood, when he fled Montreal believing he had inadvertently killed Houdini, and arrived in Manhattan seeking absolution from the illusionist’s widow, Bess.

      Here, Galloway demonstrates further command of his literary tool kit—a skilled sense of pace, a deftness at charting lives from cradle to grave—as he broaches the grand illusions concealing private selves within public façades. Beyond Martin’s wish to rekindle an abandoned romance and Houdini’s desire to expose the fraudulent spiritualists whose influence permeated the corridors of power, Galloway illustrates how duplicity is a double-edged sword that can simultaneously preserve and destroy.

      In his internationally acclaimed 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo, the Vancouver author used real people and events to explore individual responses to war and privation. Now he reaches a greater emotional spectrum, conjuring the rainbow’s edge between authenticity and artifice, remembrance and remorse, as he surveys culpability and other disenchantments.

      Steven Galloway talks about The Confabulist on Saturday (May 24) at the Lost + Found Cafe, as part of the Spur festival. See the Spur Festival website for details.