The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Review published on February 24, 2016.Reviewed by Sheila A. Grant

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

Simon Watson’s life is on the edge – literally. His family home on the American west coast is in jeopardy as the advancing ocean bites away at the foundations, his job at the library is taken away and the sister he cared for after the death of his parents is a nomad.

Then out of the blue a mysterious parcel arrives for him;  an antique but damaged book with details, illustrations and stories of a forgotten circus or family run carnival owned by Hermelius Peabody. Therein are names and intriguing references with apparent links to Simon’s mother who drowned despite being a ‘swimmer’ (a person who can dive and hold their breath for up to 10 minutes). She had used her skill as a mermaid in travelling shows. The ensuing research absorbs Simon and using his librarian skills he follows leads discovering his grandmother and great grandmother were also ‘swimmers’ and oddly like his mother all drowned on the 24th July, a date that is approaching. When Enola, Simon’s sister, also a swimmer, arrives unexpectedly the search to solve the mystery intensifies.

The writer alternates between the present day and the 1700s when Peabody’s carnival travelled the country. This switch is not always with ease and is inclined to break  the flow. To me the present day scenario made enjoyable especially when Simon spread the net of his research wider to encompass neighbours and hitherto unknown connections. The circus scenes were often repetitive and long winded.

This book has a multitude of characters all beautifully brought to life. With the Circus performers, tumblers, contortionists, miniature horses and fortune tellers we are given an insight into carnivals of centuries ago. Madame Ryzhova tells fortunes using tarot cards in a musty tent draped with fabrics, interesting but if you are unfamiliar with such cards these chapters were a tad wearying, nor did they add any impetus to the story. But a nice touch was the relationship she formed with Amos, a mute boy left to fend for himself who wanders into the circus where he finds the kindness lacking in his earlier life. Peabody gives him the chance to be The Wild Boy in a cage. This cozy atmosphere darkens when  Evangeline is discovered in the woods, a frail girl with a guilty past who becomes the Mermaid.  Her entrance brings impending doom.

A very dense book and a challenging read it is nevertheless interesting and portrays the hand to mouth existence of these travelling shows and the mixed receptions they received.

The writer has done her research and the story weaves between the two time spams with skill until gradually a pattern emerges, albeit a pattern with a rather dark result.  Not a light book in either sense but It is tightly written and a very impressive debut.

 

Sheila A. Grant
Personal 4
Group 3

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
Atlantic Books hbk Feb 2016

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