Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 29th 2014 by Knopf Canada (first published March 6th 2014)
From the dust jacket History says Harry Houdini died from a ruptured appendix, possibly the result of an ill-timed punch to the abdomen. But is the death of such a magician, one who built his career on illusion and sleight of hand, to be trusted? [Galloway] weaves together the life, loves and death of Houdini with the story of the person who secretly knows he killed him: Martin Strauss, an everyday man whose fate seems forever tied to the magician’s in complex and unforeseen ways. Martin is our guide to this early-20th-century world of vaudeville-theater and spectacle, full of escapes from straitjackets and water tanks, and also to Houdini’s tangled web of love affairs and international espionage. In the end, the narrative creates a magic trick of its own, revealing the ways in which love, grief and imagination can – for better or worse – alter what we perceive and believe.
Where do I start? Galloway’s narrative had me running to Wikipedia and other sources to check some of the “facts” presented in the book. Some elements were clearly straight from Houdini’s life, but others were obvious fabrications. I have no problem with that; it’s a work of fiction, after all.
The book is told in alternating chapters: Martin Strauss in the present day; Martin Strauss in 1926-1927; Harry Houdini 1897-1926. It starts with Strauss in the present day relating that he has just been diagnosed with a rare brain condition which will affect his memory and lead to his gradually losing his mind. The next chapter focuses on Houdini’s early career. The story then returns to Martin in the present day, followed by a chapter focusing on Martin in 1926. And so on.
The book’s structure poses some difficulties, but Houdini was a fascinating character in real life and is equally fascinating in this fictionalized account. Galloway fueled my imagination and kept me turning pages. I found myself constantly trying to figure out the trick of the book’s narrative, but like a skilled magician Galloway kept the reader’s attention away from what was REALLY happening and led us to what he wanted us to believe was happening. I’m still not sure I fully understood everything that was going on, but I enjoyed the ride.
In the end, I’m left feeling that I just saw an elephant disappear …. I know it was a trick, but I don’t know how he did it.