Books: Past and present collide in magical debut novel
Fiction: The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler, Corvus, pbk, 352 pages, €16.99
Simon Watson's life has been eroding underfoot for years. Nature has taken a toll on his family, consigning his mother to a mysterious watery grave when he was a child before grinding his father's life away through subsequent heartache. Even their family home, a crumbling pile perched precariously on a Long Island clifftop, is being gradually whittled away by the elements.
Simon is a librarian. His sister Enola, meanwhile, did what any right-minded individual would do under such circumstances and ran away to join the circus. She was drawn there by a family affinity with phantasmagorical performance arts - she inherited both her mother's ability to hold her breath under water and read tarot cards. Bookish and apologetic, Simon is nothing like her and begins to struggle with impending job cuts at his local library and the mammoth repairs the groaning house requires. Distraction arrives out of the blue in the form of a strange antique book he finds on his doorstep one day.
The handwritten and illustrated volume recounts the saga of a travelling circus two centuries ago, in particular the romance between two of its most arcane performers - a "wild" savage mute called Amos and a mermaid called Evangeline. Around them are forces, both spectral and tangible, that become woven into the fabric of their fates; the kindly and camp circus manager called Hermelius Peabody; Madame Ryzhkova, a formidable Russian seer to whom Amos is a tarot assistant and son figure; a dark secret that brought Evangeline to the circus and into the hands of Amos.
This is the world of Erika Swyler's imagination, a place of medicine shows, water nymphs and intergenerational curses. Chapter by chapter, The Book of Speculation oscillates between Simon's detective work and the folkloric murk of the musty annals in his hand. The two stretch to meet one another as Swyler's debut novel saunters along, one half reaching back through Simon's family skeletons in the cupboard, the other looming out of a past full of black magic and foreboding. They begin to intersect more and more as Simon seeks to find out why the female members of his family have all drowned themselves on July 24. That ominous date is only days away, and with Enola home visiting, he is frantic for answers.
It is too trite to call this "a book about a book", although Simon's fetishizing of the manuscript and the weight he affords its every detail do provide a vital sweat-tinged edge to the otherwise flat protagonist. Nor is this straight-up fantasy fiction or a genetic relation of other uncanny fables such as Patrick Suskind's Perfume or Louis de Bernieres' more fanciful realms. It exists instead in a very pleasing "elseworld", a dimension of magical realism that can both reference internet search engines as well as tell a secret history through flamboyant antiquarian prose and occult dramatics. Tim Burton would kill for such silken weirdness.
Swyler's background as both an actress and playwright fail to catch hold of her characterisation though, particularly in the present day chapters. Simon feels underdeveloped, passive and hard to get behind, as if Swyler just needed someone, anyone, to tell the tale through. More time should have been spent fine-tuning his voice, you feel.
Mind you, The Book of Speculation is in many ways just a family analogy dressed up in magical clothing - abandonment issues, affairs, disapproving in-laws and the sturm und drang of nature and nurture battling it out over generations. Instead of alcoholic or depressive genes, the taint of ruin travels via tarot cards "like a curse and the thoughts they contain seep into you like venom". Simon wants rid of the weight of family history but to do so he must first be smothered in it.
None of this feels too far from the lot of any medium-size family after time and tragedy has had its way.
This could well be Swyler's most dazzling illusion.