The Book of Speculation
St. Martin’s Press
Pub Date: Jun 23 2015
‘We carry our families like anchors, rooting us in storms, making sure we never drift from where and who we are. We carry our families within us the way we carry our breath underwater, keeping us afloat, keeping us alive. I’ve been lifting anchors since I was eighteen. I’ve been holding my breath since before I was born”
Ok, I’ll admit it, the mere fact that the central character in this novel is a librarian WAS the main reason I decided to read the debut novel from Erika Swyler. This was then cemented when I decided to find out who she was, and came across her Tumblr cookery site . She made me laugh. She sounded fun. How could I not read her book?
Doing a bit of research also meant that rather than try and set out what the book is about myself I could use her own quite brilliant summation: “Do you like misanthropic male librarians? How about creepy tarot cards and cursed books? Family sagas? Strange tattooed dudes who might have questionable motives? Really early circus history? Houses that are totally structurally unsound? Parents and neighbors with pretty heavy secrets? Illustrations?! That’s in there. All of it.” And it is.
Simon Watson is small town librarian on the verge of losing his job. His parents are both dead – mother drowned (suicide), father had a stroke – and his younger sister, Enola, has move away, and is working as a tarot card reader in a carnival. He lives alone in a dilapidated house perched perilously on the edge of a cliff, and lives a fairly uneventful life until a strange package arrives on his doorstep. It’s a weather damaged book from an antiquarian bookseller called Churchwarry, who claims to have bought the book at auction and on finding his grandmother’s name, Verona Bonn, inscribed in the back book, decided to track down Simon and gift the book to him.
The book is an owners log: part diary, part account book for a travelling show/carnival from over 200 year ago. It lists venues played, money made, who signs on, who leaves, everything about the show. But this one seems more than that – it also has drawings of Tarot Cards and other things too. What draws Simon in, apart from his curiosity, is the fact that it quickly becomes apparent that his grandmother drowned under the same circumstances and on the same date as his mother – 24th July. In fact, the female line of his family all seem to do so, and on that date. It is only ten days away from that date again in the book and his wayward sister is coming home. Is it just a wild, if unnerving, coincidence? or is Enola’s fate wrapped up in some kind of curse/hex on his family, and if so, can he figure out how to break the hex before it is too late.
Swyler tells the story through the tried and tested practice of alternating past and present chapters: Peabody’s travelling show, and in particular the arrivals of a mute wild boy, Amos, and then the mysterious and captivating girl, Evangeline; and present day as Simon tried to make sense of the book, his family, and his blossoming relationship with co-worker and neighbour, Alice.
This means, as a reader, we always know more than Simon, which some readers might find annoying. For me this method of storytelling serves the novel well. It is clear that Swyler felt this was the best way to put some feeling and humanity into the historical characters – and it works. You cannot help but feel for both Amos and Evangeline, and indeed also do so for the seeming villain of the piece. It is an engaging tale of love and death. As you can see from the quote above my review, Swyler is a beautiful prose writer; but she also has a eye for pacing and for capturing the magic that surrounds fairs and carnivals.
There is a believability about the lack of knowledge the characters have about their family histories. Since the television programme ‘Who do you Think You Are’ , and the increased digitization of old records, we do have now means, via a few hours on Ancestry.com to open many historic doors to our pasts: we can now find out a great deal. But, this knowledge is often just the ‘who’. We can find out who our great great great grandparents were, but that doesn’t tell us who they were, what their lives were like. It joins a dot, it doesn’t paint a picture. That said, some readers might express incredulity at just how far family connections are pushed in this book.
On a personal note, I’m not sure I agree with Swyler that Simon is a misanthrope, but reading that I was reminded of the classic Bukowski quote “I don’t hate people. I just feel better when they aren’t around.” Also as a trained Librarian I laughed when one character tells Simon ‘Just remember, we’re not librarian’s; we’re information professionals’, a truism I can attest to.
Erika Swyler’s book looks set to become one of the big books of the second half of 2015. Like Jessie Burton’s – The Miniaturist last year it is the kind of book which will appeal both the a mass readership with its blend of family history, mystery and occult, as well as a more literary readership who are as engaged with her writing as they are with the story unfolding. I also would not be surprised if this story made it to the big screen in the not too distant future.
‘May the water take that blood and wash away her and her line away’
Another fine first novel, in a year that is already impressing on that front. Shame you’ll have to wait until June to read it.