“Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival. One June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned–always on July 24, which is only weeks away. As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?” (macmillanpublishers.com)
As I mentioned in my Teaser Tuesday post for this book, you’re going to need to reserve a copy of this at your library/bookseller, because everyone will want to read it. And I said that when I was only halfway through. Now that I’ve finished, that sentiment has been reaffirmed. In her debut novel, Erika Swyler has woven a fantastic story of love, death, family, and magic, that had me reading well and truly past the allotted one hour of my lunch breaks (if my boss happens to read this, it was only an extra half hour…).
The book shifts back and forth across two time periods, which I personally really enjoy as it breaks up the narrative a little and keeps it fresh. The first is the current time, in which Simon is given the book and makes the disturbing discovery that the women in his family have a habit of dying very young by drowning, all on the same date – July 24th. As Simon looks into the past to learn what it is that has caused these women to die, in the second time period, the late 1700’s, we see how it all began: with a mute boy named Amos who has the strange ability to vanish, and a girl named Evangeline who is the first of the ‘mermaids’ – women who can hold their breath underwater for a time that would mean death for mere mortals.
Many of the reviews I’ve read for The Book of Speculation have compared it to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. This was my initial reaction too. But! If you didn’t really enjoy The Night Circus, it doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy this book. For one, there’s a lot less magic involved, and I found Swyler’s novel to have a much darker tone than Morgenstern’s. I also thought the characters were better constructed – they genuinely seemed like real people, which in turn made me more invested in the novel emotionally. I felt the greatest sense of attachment to Amos – I almost felt protective of him, which is a bit weird because he’s a character in a book, but characters can incite strange feelings like that. And the writing. So lovely. A big plus for me is if I can easily conjure images in my mind as I read, and I had no issues with this one. The writing is beautifully descriptive but not overly so – every word is of importance and sets the scene rather than just being there to fill the book out. I especially liked this:
“People may live for a century without discovering the secret of vanishing. The boy found it because he was free to listen to the ground humming, the subtle moving of soil, and the breathing of water—a whisper barely audible over the sound of a heartbeat.”
Scattered throughout the book are sketches depicting some of the characters and scenes. They not only complement the writing, but they also give the whole novel just an extra special something. I don’t what exactly, but it just made the whole reading experience that much nicer. Unfortunately for me I was reading a Kindle version of the book, but these sketches have definitely given me more of an incentive to go out and get a paper copy on release day.
If you enjoyed The Night Circus, and perhaps even Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (some people can also see similarities to Geek Love, which I haven’t read so I don’t know if that’s true), then I can guarantee you will love The Book of Speculation. So, if you’re still reading this post stop now – I have nothing more of importance to say, except go and pre-order/put a hold on this book NOW because everyone will be talking about it/blogging about it and you don’t want to be left behind!
Many thanks to St.Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy in exchange for an honest review!