When a librarian receives a rare old book from a stranger in Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation, he discovers a door into his past, leading to a world of carnival performers with mysterious secrets.
Simon Watson’s life is disintegrating: his job as a research librarian in a small New England town is eliminated through budget cuts and his childhood waterfront home is falling apart from years of disrepair. The book – bought on spec by an antique book dealer, hence the name – becomes his source for researching his family line. The story connects the lives and history of three families affiliated with a nineteenth century traveling carnival – the carnival overseer; the mysterious Russian fortune-teller; and the underwater mermaids of Simon’s heritage through his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Unraveling who has grown into the present-day characters offers more speculation – until Swyler reveals all in the end.
The story flips back and forth from Simon’s present to the past. The history of traveling carnivals with freak sideshows offers a vivid description of the hard life on the road in the early nineteenth century, and a glimpse into the lives of the performers. At times, however, the story swerves into strange territory with a young tattooed man who can turn on lights with his touch, a deck of tarot cards infused with mystical powers, and a curse causing the breath-holding women to cause floods and abnormal tides, before they all die at a young age. Simon’s pain-staking task of finding his heritage leads to a bizarre family tree and an extramarital affair that seems contrived to explain away a strange childhood.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the easy flow of the story, the magical possibilities, and the outlandish explanations. If you are a fan of The Night Circus, The Golem and the Jinni, and other books with a mix of other worldliness and family drama, Swyler’s book will fix you under its spell.
Related Review: The Night Circus