Mermaids, tarot cards and an antique book

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  • The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (St. Martin’s Press, June 2015)
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  • In 40 words or less: An enchanting debut novel of families past and present, shaped by magic, tarot and traveling circuses. A mysterious antique book and young librarian enrich the story.
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: USA East Coast
  • Time: Now and 1780’s
  • Book Group Potential: An unusual story with an interesting construction. Good for those interested in structural analysis as well as plot.
  • Extra: Indiebound.org has made this title one of its Indie Next Great Reads!

Erika Swyler’s debut, The Book of Speculation (St. Martin’s Press), is the latest novel featuring carnival mermaids, psychics and freaks. Just last year Alice Hoffman had The Museum of Extraordinary Things about a freak show in Coney Island at the turn of the 20th century. The Book of Speculation has many appealing features that set it apart from many carnival stories.

In the present, Simon Watson is hanging on by his fingernails to the disintegrating family home on the edge of Long Island Sound and his job as a research librarian in the local library. The son of a traveling circus mermaid who drowned in the Sound and a father who fell into a deep depression and died, Simon was left to care as a teen for his sensitive younger sister, Enola. With Enola off in parts unknown, a book from an 18th century traveling circus arrives at his door, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who believes it related to Simon’s family.

An omniscient narrator tells the story of Hermelius H. Peabody’s 1780’s traveling show. Entrepreneurial, but with great affection for his company, Peabody takes in a young, mute boy with unusual skills who appears one night. Alternately serving as a surrogate father and putting him to work as the “Wild Boy”, Peabody recognizes the boy’s intelligence and has the tarot card reader teach him the secrets of the cards and elevate him to her assistant.  Amos, as he is named by the troupe, is a favorite of all until a young woman with an unknown past joins the circus as a mermaid. And from there, as the cards will tell, bad things continue to happen.images

Back in the present, Enola and her tattooed, electric boyfriend arrive at the house just as it is about to fall over the cliff. They are part of a traveling show where Enola reads cards. Simon’s early reading of the antique journal leads him to believe his mother’s drowning may be familial and Enola is likely at risk within the next few seeks. Using his research skills, Simon tries to connect the 18th century volume to the current history of his family.  In the process he discovers disturbing truths about his family and the neighbor family who play such a significant role in his life.

Swyler tells a wonderful story, painting vivid pictures of the characters and surroundings. Each major character is well-drawn and consistent within his/her time.  Since the local library and Simon’s librarian contacts figure in the unveiling of connections, the reader is reminded of the tenuous nature of library funding in the present economy.

Many recent novels have suffered from great length and abrupt endings. The Book of Speculation continues naturally to its end in less than 350 pages. If you prefer visiting traveling shows between the pages of a book to walking the midway, this may be the book for you. I enjoyed it far more than I had expected.