Book Club: The Confabulist

Posted on 14th June 2015 by Robert Chilver
Introducing one of this week's two Book Club books, The Confabulist by Steven Galloway.

Nothing is quite what it seems in Steven Galloway's The Confabulist. In 1904 we take to the stage with the most famous man alive, a name we still speak of today, that of escapologist Harry Houdini. But what of the man who killed him, a man said to have actually killed him twice? Martin Strauss is tormented by his tragic encounter with the infamous performer, but his grasp on the past is quickly slipping away from him. We follow Houdini and Strauss as the performer's career hits its heights of success while the other struggles with the legacy he left when he dealt Houdini a fatal. Memories, some true, others false, flit in and out of his mind, escaping his grasp. Just what did happen to him that day?

Peeking behind the curtain of the magic and theatre at the time, Galloway brings to life the excitement and fervour surrounding Harry and Bess Houdini, capturing their increasing fame and fortunes.  Yet there is a deadly cost to their fame as Houdini’s campaign against the Spiritualist movement begins to unravel and expose a much darker time.

Giving away my age now, I grew up in the era of watching Paul Daniels and David Copperfield performing magic tricks on a Saturday night to television audiences at home. As enthralling as they were, neither seemed to match the real excitement and danger that Houdini brought to his performances.  Even here, where Galloway paints Harry as a flawed hero who's time is running out until that fateful day, with each and every escape you are never quite sure whether Houdini will make it out alive. And will Strauss find the redemption that he is looking for and make his own escape?

Read a brief extract below and prepare to unlock the mystery of The Confabulist...


There's a condition called tinnitus where you hear a ringing that isn’t there. It’s not a disease itself, merely a symptom of other maladies, but the constant hum of non-existent sound has been known to drive the afflicted to madness and suicide. I don’t suffer from this, exactly, but I have a strange feeling now and then that something wrong is going on in the background.

Today’s meeting with Dr. Korsakoff is a good example. He’s a strange little Russian who looks as though he’s never let a ray of sunlight touch his skin, and when he speaks of the human body, I begin to drift. I don’t see how he expects a man of my age to understand him. Thiamine, neurons, gliosis –

All of it coated in his throaty accent, well, it goes right by me. I wonder if this is the point of such

talk – a reminder that he has completed medical school and I have not. It seems to me that point was ceded upon my arrival in his office months ago. Did I tell him that as a young man I entertained notions of becoming a doctor? I can’t remember. I was not at all paying attention to him, that much I know. But then, out of nowhere, he said something that was impossible to miss.

“You will in essence, Mr. Strauss, lose your mind.”


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