My roomie #1, Jessica, chose books as Christmas gifts for roomie #2, Justine, and me. She went in search of books that were distinctly “us”. Justine fittingly received a suspenseful thriller, and I received The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler.
I read the first paragraph of the inside cover and was immediately reminded that she knows me far too well. “One day, a mysterious old book arrives on Simon Watson’s doorstep on Long Island Sound. Filled with elaborate script, sketches, and whimsical flourishes, it tells of doomed lovers and generations of circus ‘mermaids’ who have drowned – just like Simon’s mother – on July 24th, which is just weeks away.” Hooked! I knew it was going to be everything I wanted in a book.
Simon has stayed in his deceased parents’ house out of loyalty to his family. His parents loved their home, so he’s been sinking what little money he has from working as a librarian into attempts at keeping the house from literally toppling off a cliff into the Long Island Sound. Staying also gives his wild younger sister, Enola, a place to come back to should she ever decide to stop roaming with a circus and sleeping in her car.
Enola and Simon’s is just one of the complex relationships that Swyler delves into throughout this novel. I enjoy their dynamic, which wavers between tense and tender. They have it out about the same things over and over. Enola claims Simon and the house strangle her, and Simon claims she’s irresponsible and impulsive. Simon reminisces about the two of them running on the hot sand and rocks, and then having to take care of Enola after their mom drowns and their dad becomes mentally and emotionally absent.
I love the way Swyler navigates between Simon in the present day and flashbacks from Hermelius Peabody’s group of traveling entertainers in the late 1700’s.
Peabody moves through towns in elaborately decorated wagons, accompanied by a wild boy, a gypsy tarot reader, contortionists and more. His mission of leaving spectators in awe while simultaneously emptying their pockets becomes harder than usual, when they welcome in a young woman who can stay underwater for an unheard of amount of time.
Swyler paints vivid pictures through her characters, making their surroundings almost tangible to the reader. “The water is frigid, like April rather than July, and the first step strikes out cold. But even in the water the box feels hot like flame. Clawed feet swarm, and crab shells slow my walk to a shuffle. They circle, churning sand, tails switching and whipping my heels.”
As Simon becomes increasingly obsessed with finding connections between the people mentioned in this ancient book and his family, the past begins to catch up to everyone. Seemingly small characters or objects appear in both plot lines, foreshadowing the melding of the two time periods: the eerie swarming of horseshoe crabs, and the thin and cracking tarot cards that Enola inherited from their mother.
This juicy and fantastical piece of fiction let me escape on dreary winter days. I would highly recommend this book to anyone in need of a story rich with nostalgia, history and whimsy.
My next recent reads post will cover A People’s History of Chicago, by Kevin Coval.