In present day, Martin Strauss has just been told he has a degenerative psychiatric condition in which he creates false memories of his past. And several decades before, Harry Houdini is working his way up the music halls and theatres to becoming such a legendary escape artist he is recruited by the CIA. And Martin Strauss is the man who, as history dictates, punched him in the stomach, causing a ruptured appendix that killed him.
Of course, you can never quite be sure of anything in the story, because the first page heavily underscores that this is very unreliable narration. It’s partly the point, because the whole book is themed around the ideas of illusion and masquerade – as would befit any novel about stage magic. A few other reviewers complained about this insecure footing, but I didn’t particularly find it mattered; the novel reimagines Houdini’s death as a feint to disappear from society and what happens afterwards – the feel of fiction is intentional.
The only flaw with the novel is that Harry Houdini’s strand of the narrative is so much more fascinating than Martin Strauss’. It never once mis-steps into dry biography, and is enthralling and well-constructed enough to sell its embellishments well. The first half feels very much like a rags-to-riches, rite-of-passage but offset by the Strauss narrative it doesn’t feel prosaic, and in the second half it instead ramps into something of an espionage thriller. By contrast, the Strauss narrative feels a bit less sharp and defined, and both strands suffer somewhat from a surplus of beautiful women with no character. (Lest you mis-translate that however, the writer does a sterling job of depicting Bess, Houdini’s long-suffering wife.)
All this said, whilst the above paragraphs might sound rather negative, I did actually enjoy the book. For some reason I was predisposed against reading it, but the book pot decreed, and within four or five pages the narration had turned me around; I finished the whole thing in two days. The Houdini half is gripping, and the Strauss half only really suffers by comparison. If anything, the harshest criticism is that the whole book feels a little like a paler cousin to Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, rehashing many of the same themes, explorations and events. Recommended to those of you who might already enjoy this type of novel, but perhaps not one to appeal to anyone outside of its sphere of interest.