I've lived in Arizona for 70 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.
The Book of Speculation
How on Earth Could All These Unrelated Topics be Woven into a Bestseller?
I facilitate a women's book club and over the summer, I compile a list of recommended books from our members, from other book club recommends, and from the books I have personally read, so that by Fall our members can vote on which books we will discuss during the the following year. When I read a synopsis of The Book of Speculation, I couldn't imagine how the topics of a librarian, a mysterious old book with a family name in it, tarot readers, mermaids, ancient family secrets regarding drownings, a tattooed man, curses, magic, carnivals and a house that appears to be cursed.could make sense in two narratives. (One that begins in modern time and the other which begins in 1780.) But author Erika Swyler has managed to make sense of these seemingly separate topics and has created a page turner in her first novel.
Tarot Devil Card
The Characters, Style and Plot
The book opens with the main character, Simon, pondering his chances of saving the only home he has ever lived in which is in peril of falling off a cliff in Napawset, Long Island. Simon's father had been devastated by the drowning suicide of his wife, (Simon's mother) and never maintained the house after her death. Simon refers to the house as an unfixable problem. He can't afford to fix the house and emotionally he can't leave the house. After Simon's father died Simon raised his sister Enola, who eventually left Simon and the house to pursue what Simon believed to be an unstable life with a carnival. A surprising family oddity is that Simon's mother Paulina drowned in the water below the cliffs, even though she had the ability to expand her lungs and had once been a mermaid in a carnival. She had taught both Simon and Paulina how to stay under the water for up to ten minutes and the mysterious presence of the horseshoe crabs filling the shoreline and water the day Paulina is introduced, but not explained until much later. Chapter 1 also introduces Simon's neighbors Frank, his wife and their daughter Alice who has always appealed to Simon although he seems unable to either move forward in their relationship or let her go. Change begins when Simon receives a damaged old book, from a bookseller, who sends Simon the book because of a name written in the book that could be connected to Simon's family. The question, Haven't you ever felt connected to a book? is something for the reader to ponder during the course of the book.
Chapter two begins in 1780 when a mute, bastard boy, (Amos) is abandoned to forage for himself. Amos seemingly has the ability to make himself disappear to survive as a thief. When he encounters a carnival, he becomes a wild boy attraction and receives affection from Mr. Peabody the shrewd owner of the carnival and Madame Ryzhkova. She can tell the future by the use of her Tarot cards. While she is adept at telling customers things about their future that are manufactured to make money for the carnival, she really does have the ability to read the future as predicted by the cards. When Amos becomes her assistant, she loves him as her son.
Trouble arrives for everyone in the carnival when a beautiful girl, Evangeline, arrives out of a river with the powerful secret that she has been a murderer. Her talent and ability to hold her breath underwater make her the carnival's mermaid and their main attraction. Amos is strongly drawn to her despite the dire warnings from Madame Ryzhkova.
The language used by the author is descriptive and flows seamlessly between the two time periods. Illustrations of the Tarot cards, which were hand drawn by the author, provide images of the dark happenings in the future and added to my enjoyment of the book. Readers who are able to entertain the possibilities of unlikely connections between persons dead and living, and events which may be imagined or real, will appreciate the author's craft to make readers suspend their disbelief.
"The book sits by the phone, a tempting little mystery. I won't sleep tonight, I often don't. I'll be up fixating. On the house, on my sister, on money. ...If this book is meant for me, best find out why."
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Surprises and Secrets Revealed
The story line contains a number of plot turns and surprising revelations , as the family saga of the carnival characters in the past and in the present continue to merge,the plot twists create a wonderful sense of irony. The more information from genealogical research and information from those around him that Simon receives from persons he thought he knew, the more Simon continues his downward spiral.
In the parallel narrative, Amos and Evangeline continue to struggle against the predictions of the Tarot cards. The author has taken the image of water as life giving and twisted it into the image of a destroyer.
Was the mysterious book sent to save or to reinforce the seeming curse?
The Book of Speculation succeeds on a number of levels and truly was a book that continued to hold my interest until the last page.
© 2018 mactavers
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on June 23, 2018:
Thanks for the review of this book. It sounds like a book I would definitely enjoy reading.