The Book of Speculation
By Erika Swyler
St. Martin's Press
Tolstoy may have noted that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but it may also be true that each family that loves each other loves in its own way.
That’s certainly the case in Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation, a whimsical, magical and yet well-grounded novel about mermaids who drown and a heritage that finds each generation without them even seeking it.
In the present day, Simon Watson seems the quietest and dullest of men. He works as a reference librarian and lives in his late parents’ house, which is starting to fall apart around him as it perches on the edge of an inhospitable Northeastern coast. His retired neighbor Frank is over constantly, mending the house and cajoling Simon into having serious work done on it. Frank’s daughter, Alice, also works at the library.
The only things not grounded about Simon’s life are his own relatives. His mother drowned when he and his sister, Enola, were young. He raised his sister while his father took years to die, sitting at the kitchen table. He and his sister can hold their breath underwater for unreal lengths of time. Enola travels with a carnival, reading Tarot cards. She’s getting near the age when their mother walked into the ocean and she’s finally made one of her infrequent phone calls. She’s coming home.
Simon also receives an old book from a rare books seller in the Midwest. It’s not a normal book. There are sketches and tales of a traveling show on the road. There is the story of a mute boy who wandered into Peabody’s traveling menagerie, an old fortune teller and a young woman who arrived in terror.
Each member of the troupe has suffered loss and each can do something no one else can. The boy, who the fortune teller names Amos, can breathe slowly and disappear. The fortune teller has an affinity for a hand-drawn Tarot deck that goes beyond sideshow tales. The woman was enchanted by a carnival man who disappeared, and who killed the one who tried to prevent her from repeating her mother’s sorrowful mistake. Peabody makes her a mermaid act.
The mute and the mermaid fall in love, but it is not a happy tale.
In alternating chapters, Simon’s life is starting to fall apart. He and Alice realize they are even closer than they have always been, but Simon loses his job in these days when libraries are not treasured.
And the book he was sent -- it draws him in as surely as the water has drawn in generations of the women in their family.
Swyler’s alternating stories veer more toward the magic than the real. But whether the things that happened can be explained rationally or not, what remains real and true are the ways in which the characters care for each other. Motives are revealed that explain characters’ actions and enrich their personalities. There are few villains -- even the most selfish are seeking love or forgiveness.
There is evil, however, and at one point Simon fears it lives in the objects he loves most, including books. It’s a terrifying notion for anyone who loves books as Simon does.
For a novel in which many of the characters are hurting deeply, there is little that is morose, in part because Swyler can rely on a narrative voice that resembles a fairy tale.
Like a fairy tale, by the time The Book of Speculation has come to an end, connections are made and resolutions have come to pass. Unlike many fairy tales, there is the knowledge here that things go on and that the characters still have life to experience. And that whatever that experience is, it will include each other:
©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission“We carry our families like anchors, rooting us in storms, making sure we never drift from where and who we are. We carry our families within us the way we carry our breath underwater, keeping us afloat, keeping us alive.”