Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: June 23rd 2015
Debut novelist Erika Swyler does not waste any time before throwing the reader into the deep end of The Book of Speculation. The novel begins with Simon Watson, a librarian with the ability to hold his breath for underwater for almost ten minutes at a time, a skill passed on to him by his mother before she drowned herself when he was seven. Now, he lives alone in the family’s home on the Long Island shore, and watches both his life and their house slide slowly away, one into the ocean and the other into aimless unemployment. When an Iowa bookseller sends him a book that appears to be a carnival owner’s log, it provides the distraction he needs from the pressing realities around him. When he discovers it dates back to the 1800s and contains his grandmother’s name the distraction becomes an obsession.
Hermelius Peabody is the carnival owner, a wise and resourceful man, capable of making something out of almost nothing. One of his best discoveries is Amos, a mute abandoned by his family, who becomes the Wild Boy, and is our introduction into the world of Simon’s ancestors. Later, he becomes an apprentice to Madame Ryzhkhova, a fortune-telling crone who tells him early on
“Water comes, strangling what it touches as if made flesh. Father, mother, all will wither. You will wear and break until there is nothing. For you it will be as water cuts stone.”
Shortly, thereafter he meets Evangeline, a beautiful young woman who can hold her breath underwater long enough to play the part of a mermaid. She draws in the crowds and Amos as well. Through the carnival log and his own research Simon begins to piece together a family history that is both haunting and tragic. Namely, that going back for generations the women in his family have been drowning themselves in their early twenties on July 24th—a date that is fast approaching. Oh, and did I mention that Simon’s fortunetelling sister Enola decides to come for a visit in late July after having been out of touch for years?
Swyler has a prodigious ability to shift eras, merge and add elements in a way that mimics the unusual and somewhat magical skills of the carnival members. By its midpoint, The Book of Speculation is moving so quickly and with such intensity that it feels as if she is channeling the story rather than directing it. In the present, Simon is battling to keep his house from falling into the ocean, has lost his job, and is trying to sort out his personal life while in the past Amos and the carnival, with its plethora of fascinating characters, is generating the backstory for what lies ahead. This profusion of plot, characters, magic, mystery and a fluid timeline generates a riptide of information with the potential to pull the reader under. There are horseshoe crabs, selkies, tarot cards, history, affairs, suicide, curses, men whose bodies conduct electricity, an old book and always, the lure of water, that ties all this to Simon’s family. For some there will simply be too much happening in The Book of Speculation, but for those who want to dive in and stay submerged it is a wild ride.