Book review: ‘The Book of Speculation’

A good book is magical. A piece of our heart stays tucked inside its lines when we return the book to its place on our shelf.

Good novels about good books can be even more special, doubling the fun with two tomes to love. And when the book within the book is actually magical, as it is — or may be — in Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation, well, let the wild read start.

The story begins with a rather mild-mannered librarian, Simon Watson, who lives on the northern edge of Long Island Sound in the home where he grew up.

The home is literally on the edge, falling apart and perched at the top of a bluff that is losing its battle with erosion. Simon’s life has a similar just-hanging-on quality. His job is threatened by budget cuts. His parents are both dead, and his sister, Enola, left years ago to join the circus.

Into this solitary, precarious existence comes a book. And it’s a whopper of book: a water-damaged antique with a “musty, slightly acrid scent.”

The book comes with a hand-written note, signed by a Mr. Martin Churchwarry, a bookseller, saying that there is a name inside the book — Verona Bonn — and that the book “might be of interest” to Simon and his family.

The book is very much of interest to Simon. Verona Bonn was his grandmother, and the book “appears to be both diary and account book for a traveling show,” a circus called Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles.

He also notices a line in the book that says a woman named Bess Visser died on July 24, 1816. She drowned. July 24 also happened to be the date Simon’s mother died. She, too, drowned, even though she had remarkable swimming abilities and was, in fact, a mermaid in a traveling circus.

Swyler’s narrative follows Simon’s frenetic descent into the mysteries of the book and his own past, where layers of half-truths and lies mix with the supernatural. His family’s secrets seem to be literally bound into the book, and with their gradual unveiling come potentially terrifying new threats for his sister’s future, and his own.

Swyler breaks up this intense, first-person narrative with a second one, which in alternating chapters takes readers back to the days of Peabody’s circus and the antique book’s origins.

We meet Amon the Wild Boy, a mute who found his way to the circus from a farm in Virginia. And we meet the beautiful Evangeline, who becomes a mermaid in the sideshow.

Gradually, through rich detail and spellbinding suspense, the two narratives spin a single story of a family’s bizarre, dark history.

In an interview supplied by her publisher, St. Martin’s Press, Swyler says she “pretty much lived in libraries for months,” researching the history of circus in America for this book.

Oddly enough, I happened to be reading the galleys of a soon-to-be-published nonfiction book about the history of the American sideshow while I was reading the advance reader’s edition of this novel, and I found myself captivated and awed by Swyler’s ability to take what is already an interesting and entertaining slice of the past and turn it into a fresh, fictional world that feels vibrant and alive with color, character and, yes, magic.

Swyler’s scenes have a cinematic quality and indeed, this novel has wonderful fodder for a film version. Her writing is crisp and carefully crafted. I found myself writing the word “pretty” in the margins of many passages, such as this one, which comes when Simon is asked to leave his house:

“The house. I just can’t leave it. At times it feels like our parents are still in it, in the walls, and someone needs to see them through to its end. I’m as rootless now as I’ll ever be, but here I know what roads to take when the water’s up, where everyone is based on the tide, who’s a summer person, who lives here. Here my hard feet make sense. And Enola knows to come back here.”

The history of The Book of Speculation also involves a book within a book.

To submit her book to publishers, Swyler wanted to mimic for them the feeling Simon gets when the old book arrives at his home. She learned how to tea-stain pages and hand-bind books, then turned her manuscripts into, as she says in the same publisher’s interview, “little replicas of the mysterious book that Simon receives,” as it was important for her “to convey both the magic and the tactile pleasure that is an old book.”

She also illustrated her manuscript with sketches that would have appeared in Peabody’s book. Some of these sketches are in the published novel, though that wasn’t Swyler’s original intention: “When St. Martin’s said they were interested in illustrations, I foolishly latched on to this idea that an illustrator would be brought in and we’d have fantastic meetings over coffee where we’d discuss tarot cards and circus wagons.

“When I realized that St. Martin’s wanted my illustrations, I had a small heart attack.”

She need not have. The illustrations add charm, and make Peabody’s book seem all that much more real. So when you return this book to its shelf, be prepared to leave a little piece of your heart in a couple places.

The Book of Speculation

by Erika Swyler

St. Martin’s Press, $26.99

Audiobook: Macmillan Audio, $39.99; read by actors Ari Fliakos, David Pittu and Katherine Kellgren.