Wednesday, November 4, 2015

November Book Review Club: THE BOOK OF SPECULATION

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@Barrie Summy

We have exactly one tree left with leaves on it, so I guess it's time to admit that the Reading Season is upon us. Not to mention the Festive Holiday Madness. Here's a possibility for either or both, although with some reservations. 

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By Erika Swyler
St. Martin’s Press, 2015

First-person narration can be a risky business.  The narrator has to do more than just tell the story—he has to share bits of himself along the way, endear himself to us even if he’s a villain. A reader has to be willing to invest a chunk of time in this person.

Never in all my days did I expect to enjoy a novel with an essentially bland protagonist/narrator who learns next to nothing from events. THE BOOK OF SPECULATION is just such a novel—rife with good stuff that I really loved, but a struggle to get through at times because the narrator was just so colorless.

My man bought it for my birthday, having listened to it on tape while painting. “This is what you would write if you wrote for adults,” he told me.

Thank you, schnookums. I think.

In many, many ways, this is a fascinating, beautifully written book. When we meet Simon Watson, he’s a lonely reference librarian in a small town far out on Long Island. He’s about to lose his job and erosion is about to send his lifelong home tumbling into Long Island Sound. He is stymied, unwilling to move because the house is the only place his younger sister, an emotionally unstable itinerant circus performer, can really call home. But he can’t afford to shore up the bluff and save the place.

Out of the blue, an antiquities dealer in Iowa sends him a 200-year-old book, the diary/financial ledger of a traveling circus owner called Hermilius Peabody. Written in it is the name of Simon’s grandmother, a circus performer who apparently had the book in her possession for a while.

Simon’s curious but not that fascinated until he sees the 1816 notation of a woman’s drowning—on July 24, the exact date when his mother left her children in the bluff-top house and walked into the Sound, never to return. 

Curiosity becomes obsession, and we follow Simon as he does what a research librarian does best, tracking down names and dates and making connections between them. We learn that the women in his family have always had an uncanny ability to hold their breath under water, and for generations have worked as water-tank “mermaids,” sideshow attractions in traveling circuses.

Simon’s mother was a mermaid when his father fell in love with her. He and his sister, Enola, inherited the ability. 

Enola works as a fortune-teller rather than a mermaid.  Nevertheless, Simon is horrified when she unaccountably is drawn to revisit their seaside home in July.  He finds evidence of more drownings on the 24th. The clock starts ticking—can he figure out what’s going on before the fateful date?

The book alternates Simon’s narrative with the tale of Hermilius Peabody and his circus, told in third person. Hand-drawn tarot cards come into play, along with infestations of horseshoe crabs and weird meteorological events. The metaphysical logic never gets spelled out, but who cares. It’s marvelous.

Here’s the  thing: I found myself heaving a resigned sigh whenever Simon took back the narration. The chapters set in the 1800s are as textured and richly colored as a Persian rug. The modern chapters are beige vinyl floor tiles.  

There are stirring events all over the place, and Simon’s modern situation gets worse and worse in lively fashion. He tells us he’s upset and worried about it all, but we never feel it, or at least I didn’t. He does stuff, but his actions seem vague and indirect, never precise in their attack.  As a result, even the July 24 situation lacks the suspense it should have.

The other characters in Simon’s life are interesting, especially his sister and her circus boyfriend, who can turn lightbulbs on by touching them. But you never get deep enough, or even glean enough facts, to understand them or root for them.

In the 1800s, I rooted for everyone—I kept wishing the whole novel was back there.  Swyler may be more comfortable and interested writing about the past.

I hope her next novel stays there.

(Dear FCC: As stated above, I got this book for my birthday. For the record, I don't actually call the man "schnookums".)