Before escape artist Harry Houdini died, he vowed he would find a way to speak to his beloved wife, Bess, from beyond the grave using a coded message known only to the two of them. When a widowed Bess begins seeing this code in seemingly impossible places, it becomes clear that Harry has an urgent message to convey. Unlocking the puzzle will set Bess on a course back through the pair’s extraordinary romance, which swept the illusionist and his bride from the beaches of Coney Island, to the palaces of Austria, to the back lots of Hollywood. When the mystery finally leads Bess to the doorstep of an intriguing young photographer, she realizes that her husband’s magic may have been more than just an illusion.
Everyone knows a reader with the annoying habit of reading passages aloud — passages they find particularly moving or profound or poetic or apt that they feel compelled to share. If you are not one of those readers, Mrs. Houdini may turn you into one. Poet and first-time novelist Victoria Kelly brings the story and its characters to life in language that dances and haunts and makes everything seem real and true. (Imagine me reading the next part aloud, or maybe read it aloud yourself to get the full effect.)
“If she had thought London dazzling, then Budapest at the turn of the century was even more so. It was the era of the great Hungarian poets — Endre Ady and Mihály Babits, writers she had heard of — and the streets were lined with small coffeehouses and with wood-panelled walls and firelit rooms where both men and women bent over books and porcelain cups of hot beverages … They entered the city in the pink twilight, the streets full of the music of hoofbeats on the hardwood blocks of the great avenues, which were lined with enormous green topiaries … Bess looked over at [Harry’s mother] Mrs. Weiss, and saw that her eyes were filled with tears. She was gripping her son’s hand, but the other hand, the one holding her handkerchief, was white as bone. Bess imagined she was remembering the last time she had been there, with Rabbi Weiss, so many years before, and how young they must have been then, their unlined faces shining on these very streets. “Has it changed a great deal?” she asked Mrs. Weiss. The old woman looked toward her, starry-eyed. “Oh, very much. It seems so much . . . more colourful than I remember. All my memories of it are black and grey.””
Okay, that was a long passage, but there are so many that are just as lovely. Kelly chooses her words carefully, depicting the Houdinis and the times in which they lived with the precision and attention to detail that can only come from extensive research. In many ways, it feels like a love letter to the couple: Harry, the larger-than-life escape artist and great romantic, and Bess, the intelligent and supportive wife caught up in his spell, the great woman behind the great man:
“Few people knew how much they had lived through together, how they had spent the first five years of their marriage sleeping on cots and in hallways and stealing potatoes to survive. There hadn’t been a day in twenty years that she and Harry had spent apart. After his mother died, especially, he clung to her. He couldn’t even choose his own clothes without her. Perhaps it was because he felt Bess was the only one still living who really knew him; in public, he would always be the showman, but at home he was only Harry.”
Naturally there is magic throughout, with detailed and suspenseful descriptions of Harry’s many incredible feats, but the heart of the story is the relationship between Harry and Bess. We see the couple through their bests and worsts, at their highs and lows, and how they are bonded by their shared experiences. Bess’s obsession with Harry’s returning in some way after death is believable not only because of Harry’s ability to do seemingly unimaginable feats, but because of their great love.
A love story, a mystery, a highly quotable work of historical fiction — Mrs. Houdini is a novel that made me want to learn more about one extraordinary couple.
To win a copy of Mrs. Houdini (thanks Simon & Schuster Canada!), tell me the name of one of your favourite love stories or mysteries (fiction or real life).
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The giveaway is open to Canadian residents (excluding Quebec) 18+ and ends April 16, 2016 at midnight EST.
Update April 17, 2016: Congratulations Pam H!
Simon & Schuster Canada sent me a copy of Mrs. Houdini in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.