Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (2015)

The Book of Speculation opens with Simon surveying his family home on the Long Island Sound. The house sits right the end of the cliff and, following years of neglect, if it does not receive serious investment, it will fall into the sea. Simon, like the house, seems beaten down and neglected - working as a librarian, he does not have the money to fix the house properly so spends what little he has plugging up the gaps. His neighbour, Frank, constantly and needlessly reminds him about the damage occurring to the house, but there seems to be little Simon is able or willing to do.

Simon does have a skill he does exceptionally well - he is a water breather. His mother, who was a circus performer, taught him to hold his breath underwater for amazing lengths of time. When he was seven years old, she walked into the water and drowned, leaving Simon to care for his sister Enola and Simon and Enola's father to slowly die of grief. Simon's thoughts circle around these two poles: his mother's death and the decay of his house. They trap him, like a hamster running around a cage.

One day Simon arrives home to find a package waiting for him on the doorstep. It is a very old book that would be very valuable except that it has been severely damaged by water. The book is accompanied by a note:

Dear Mr. Watson,
I came across this book at auction as part of a larger lot I purchased on speculation. The damage renders it useless to me, but a name inside it—Verona Bonn—led me to believe it might be of interest to you or your family. It's a lovely book, and I hope that it fins a good home with you. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions that you feel I might be able to answer.

Mr. Martin Churchwarry of Churchwarry & Sons

The name that led Mr Churchwarry to Simon is that of his grandmother, who also drowned. What is her name doing in this book and how did it end up on Simon's door in such a state? Is his sister due to experience the same fate that befell his mother and grandmother? Can she be saved?

However, The Book of Speculation is not just Simon's story. In what is clearly the storytelling fashion du jour (this is the fifth book I've read this year with this structure!), every second chapter takes us back in time to the historical past. A mute boy born out of wedlock is abandoned by his family in the woods. Miraculously, he survives by scavenging food and shelter and develops the remarkable talent of making himself vanish. After years of living alone, he stumbles on a circus. Filled with freaks and oddities, he feels at home there and starts to appear in the circus as a Wild Boy. In the present day, Simon reads about the Wild Boy in his book, so we know the two storylines are connected, but how and what joins them?

This book reminded me a lot of The Night Circus. Obviously the circus settings are the same but also the magic undercurrent that implies that within a circus, the performances do contain a touch of the supernatural. Honestly, Simon is a bit of a wet blanket, but the people around hime - his lover Alice, his sister Enola and his neighbour Frank - are interesting enough so the narrative is engaging. The story of how the Wild Boy becomes a fortune teller and falls in lovely is really lovely and the two halves of the book work really well together. I enjoyed this book a lot - four stars.

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