Family secrets have a way of haunting descendants, even when the descendants don’t know the whole story. At least, that’s the way it is for Simon and Enola Watson in Erika Swyler’s captivating The Book of Speculation. Recent tragedies have led Simon to be a staid archivist in the Watson’s hometown of Napawset, Long Island; Enola took up their mother’s former occupation as a tarot readers for a traveling carnival. What they don’t know is that their family has been cursed for more than 200 years.
I picked up this book because the blurb mentioned a librarian and a mysterious book. I had no idea that I would be reading yet another circus book. (I am on an unintentional streak, apparently, with The Magician’s Lie, Church of Marvels, and now The Book of Speculation.) Simon didn’t what what he was in for either, when the battered and water-damaged book arrived at his house. Up to this point, his major worries had been keeping his job at the local budget-strapped library, keeping his house from falling into Long Island Sound, and his wandering sister. The book has names that remind Simon of old family stories. The antiquarian who send Simon the book says its connected with his family somehow.
As Simon dives into the book and the unspoken history of his family, Swyler introduces Amos, a mute who find work with Hermelius Peabody’s traveling show as a “wild boy.” Peabody is also the author of Simon’s book. It doesn’t take long to work out that Amos’ story is the origin of Simon’s family’s story. The major question at this point is, how does Amos connect to the string of young women in the family drowning at a young age, all of them on July 24? The question becomes more urgent for Simon when his sister, who fits the pattern of the family women, returns home 10 days before July 24. As Amos and Simon trade off as narrators, the tension ratchets higher.
The Book of Speculation hit so many of my buttons: the book, the tense plot, the mysterious family secrets. And then there’s the book and the librarian. Late in the book, Simon thinks he’s found a way to lift his family’s curse, but it will cost him. Simon reflects:
Once you’ve held a book and really loved it, you forever remember the feel of it, its specific weight, the way it sits in your hand. My thumb knows the grain of this book’s leather, the dry dust of red rot that’s crept up its spine, each waving leaf of every page that holds a little secret or one of Peabody’s flourishes. A librarian remembers the particular scent of glue and dust, and if we’re so lucky—and I was—the smell of parchment, a quiet tanginess, softer than wood pulp or cotton rag. We would bury ourselves in books until flesh and paper became one and ink and blood at least ran together. So maybe my hand does clench too tightly to the spine. I may never again hold another book this old, or one with such a whisper of me in it. (Chapter 23*)
The entire book is like this. Most chapters have something—an epiphany, a bit of beautiful exposition, a character’s thought—that sets off a little frisson in my reader’s and librarian’s soul. It’s remarkable how Swyler grows Simon’s story out of books and archival records. It’s not just paper and ink. Those documents are the traces left by people who once lived, broadly speaking. The Book of Speculation captures that.
This book, like Church of Marvels, absolutely knocked me off my feet. Books that blend mystery, libraries, and traveling circuses appear to be my genre kryptonite.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 23 June 2015.
* Quotes are from the advanced reader copy of the 2015 edition by St. Martin’s Press.