Book Review: The Book of Speculation: A Novel, Erika Swyler (2015)

June 24th, 2015 12:10 pm by Kelly Garbato

“Even Pandora’s Box had hope.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Churchwarry laughs, and I begin to understand some of his delight in passing books on. There’s a certain serendipity, a little light that’s settled in my sternum.

How could I have known that goodbye meant goodbye?

Simon Watson comes from a long and storied line of performers: travelers, carnies, circus folks. Divers and breath-holders (half-mermaid women!) as well as fortune tellers and tarot card readers (psychics and witches!). Like his predecessors, Simon is a master of reinvention. Rather than taking up the family business, as did his younger sister Enola – who bailed on him and joined the circus the moment she turned 18 – Simon has chosen a more practical vocation: he’s a librarian at the Napawset library. And unlike his distant, nomadic relatives, Simon seems rooted to a single spot: the crumbling, 1700s colonial house that he and Enola called home.

After Simon’s mother Paulina committed suicide – one day, she bid him and Enola farewell, walked into the ocean, and never came out; a mermaid who drowns? how does such a thing even work? – father Daniel became nearly comatose in his grief. It was Simon who looked after Enola; Simon who bandaged her cuts; Simon who taught her how to how to dive and swim and hold her breathe for ten minutes straight, just like his mom the mermaid showed him. And when Daniel finally dropped dead of a heart attack, it was Simon who worked several jobs at a time to put food on the table.

And so the house began to come apart at the seams: thanks to Daniel’s apathy and Simon’s ignorance, yes, but also due in no small part to the relentless pull of nature. Hurricanes, thunderstorms, flooding, erosion: all of these threaten to drive the Watson family house over its cliffside perch and plunge it into the depths of the Atlantic ocean.

Yet in these walls dwell the ghosts of Paulina and Daniel – and Simon just can’t let them go. Neither can Frank McAvoy, the Watson’s neighbor and longtime friend.

When a handwritten ledger dating back to the late 1700s mysteriously appears on Simon’s doorstep, it naturally excites the “information specialist” in him – and hey, if it offers a temporary escape from reality, all the better. Simon’s grandmother Verona Bronn makes a cameo in the book, near the very back – right before the remaining pages were claimed by water damage and rot. As he delves into the mysteries of the titular “book of speculation” – otherwise known as the ledger of one Mr. Hermelius Peabody – Simon makes a sinister discovery: all of the women in his matrilineal line die. They die young, but not before having a daughter; they die of drowning, even though all are mermaids; and they die of apparent suicides, even where no clear history of mental illness exists. Most shockingly of all, they all perish in the same way on the same day: July 24th.

It’s late June, and Eola has just announced that she’s returning home for the first time since fleeing more than six years ago. Simon has but days to get to the bottom of the family curse – and banish it to the annals of history forever. Luckily, he’s got help: in addition to his network of superhero librarians, there’s Martin Churchwarry, who found and gifted him the book; Frank McAvoy and his daughter Alice; and Enola and her new beau Doyle, the Electric Boy/Tattooed Man (squid? octopus?). The pasts and futures of all of these folks are, naturally, tangled in all sorts of ways, both lovely and tragic.

There are so, so many things I loved about The Book of Speculation. The writing is magical; this story is bursting at the seams with quotable bits and passages that will stick with you long after turning the final page. I laughed, I cried, I cursed the heavens.

Books, of course, are a central theme; in fact, if I had to sum this book up in just two words, it’d have to be “water” and “paper.” The Book of Speculation often reads like a love letter to libraries and librarians; through Simon’s troubles at work, we mere patrons are afforded a glimpse inside the inner workings of a library, including all that it takes to keep them afloat (grants, grants, grants). Churchwarry’s delight at delivering the right book to the right person is simply infectious, and Simon’s last-ditch effort to save his old library is nothing short of heartbreaking. (Doyle’s comment re: the encyclopedias?: “Somebody drew dicks all over it anyway.” Priceless.)

Swyler breathes life into her characters, most of whom I adored. (Yes, even sad sack Frank; my heart ached for him, just a little.) Simon, Enola, Doyle, Churchwarry, Alice, Leah, Amos, Evangeline, Yelena Ryzhkova, even Peabody: each one tugged at my heartstrings in a different way. How Amos learned to express himself through the tarot cards. Evangeline, the victim of religious fervor and superstition, who nonetheless tried to find a place for herself in the world. Simon, keeping vigil for Enola still, even after all these years.

And Enola – yes, as in that Enola; as fucked up as it is, there’s something almost lovely in Paulina’s naivety in thinking that a tragedy so vast could possibly be reclaimed, repaired, made beautiful again. Enola the explosion. Enola the compulsive tarot card reader. Enola who might not have been Enola had she grown up in the house next door. Enola who, for all her flaws, is pretty well-adjusted in spite of it all.

Probably the only person who failed to charm me was Benno, and that’s because his motivations remained rather murky. He always seemed to be scheming – above and beyond the profiteering Peabody, which is saying something.

I especially loved the dual chronologies: as Simon dives into the mystery shrouding his family, the origins of the curse are laid bare for us. Simon’s present alternates with his past as pages of the book come alive and we are transported to the East Coast, circa the late 1700s. The tale begins when Peabody’s traveling circus takes on a young, mute, seemingly feral boy who they christen Amos; as the boy grows into a man, he’s transformed from the Wild Boy to Madame Ryzhkova’s apprentice. When he falls in love with a troubled young woman who appears seemingly out of nowhere, Amos’s mentor and adopted mother predicts disaster, heartbreak, and murder. What happens next will reverberate on down the family line. Self-fulfilling prophecy much?

At its core, The Book of Speculation is a book about family. About holding tight to your memories, but not letting the past define you. About love and loss and the cycle they generate.

Though the book’s setting practically screams “summer reading!,” I wouldn’t classify The Book of Speculation as a light summer read. There are so many puzzle pieces to keep track of, names and dates and locations and historic events, that I actually sketched a family tree (or a semblance of one, anyway) to keep track of it all. This counts as a positive for me: I love it when an author keeps me on my toes and guessing. Sometimes I like to work for the resolution, you know? And while you’re likely to get the gist of it pretty quickly, there are so many layers to the mystery that you’ll never get bored. I found myself captivated by the story even after I’d set it aside to do other things – chores or whatever – and couldn’t wait until I’d be able to pick it up once again.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. Amos – the great-great-great (etc.) grandfather of Simon and Enola – is dark skinned and mute. Peabody describes him as “dark enough to pass as a Mussulman or Turk,” and even thinks about marketing him as Indian at one point. (Peabody runs a carnival.)

Additionally, all of Simon’s female relatives on his mother’s side commit suicide. (Though this is due to a curse vs. depression, so I’m not sure that it counts.)

Animal-friendly elements: The carnival includes some animal acts – a counting pig, a miniature pony – and, while some of the performers really do love them (e.g., Amos and Sugar Nip), at the end of the day they’re just property, and no one seems to grieve them when they’re killed in the flooding of Charlotte.

 

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