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Saving Houdini

by Michael Redhill

The enduring mystique of Harry Houdini continues to fascinate Canadian writers.  Steven Galloway’s new novel, The Confabulist, is, at least in part, a fictionalized account of the Montreal student some claim to have precipitated the famed magician’s death by punching him in the stomach and rupturing his appendix. That student also appears, under his own name of Gordon Whitehead, in Michael Redhill’s first novel for young people, which uses Houdini’s final days as a springboard for a time-travel story about friendship and various kinds of magic.

It’s the fall of 2011 when 11-year-old Dashiel Woolf’s parents take him to a magic show featuring Bloom the Beguiler, who enlists Dash as his reluctant volunteer for an illusion called the Soap Bubble Vanish. On stage, Dash is handed a mysterious package by a boy in the wings, and he takes his place within a magical cone that whisks him back to the year 1926.

Tossed back in time, Dash befriends a boy named Walter Gibson, and the two hatch a plan to jump a train for Montreal, where they hope to locate the famed Harry Houdini and convince him to attend a performance of the Soap Bubble Vanish (performed by a forbear of Bloom the Beguiler) that will, with luck, result in Dash being returned to his rightful 21st-century home.

Some readers may buy into the twists and turns of Redhill’s story, but others may get tripped up by its numerous implausibilities, including a couple of episodes in which revenants of Dash’s later selves appear in the past to help him out of tight spots. (Even in a story about the power of magic, these scenes seem a bit too reliant on their deus ex machina devices.) Moreover, the novel is narrated in the close third person from Dash’s point of view, save for one brief (yet key) scene told from Houdini’s perspective. This shift is jarring, and feels more like an authorial contrivance than something rising organically from the story.

Redhill’s message, about the power of friendship to survive the ravages of time, geography, and even death, is commendable, although the epigraph from Thomas Aquinas is probably a bit much. Then again, in a story featuring (among other things) time travel, a drove of pigs stampeding through a Montreal train station, and the greatest illusionist who ever lived, perhaps complaints of excessiveness are beside the point.