My rating: 4 of 5 stars
4 stars to Erika Swyler‘s The Book of Speculation, a beautiful story full of intense imagery and powerful connections among the many characters. With a slight border into the fantasy realm, this tale is well-woven and provides an opportunity to feel the impact the past has across a family’s descendants and relationships. The book alternates chapters weaving the past and the present together while challenging the reader to determine the connection between the two stories.
In the past, a traveling carnival and circus heads up and down the Eastern seaboard in the mid 18th century lead by the incomparable Peabody. Along the way, he takes in stray who become part of his acts and his own life. When he’s forced to choose between some of the older members and the newer finds, disaster strikes causing a flood of impacts for the future.
In the present, Simon Watson, receives a book from a mysterious bookseller in Iowa. Simon’s Long Island shore house is crumbling and he loses his job as a librarian in difficult economic times. His wayward carnie sister comes home resembling their late mother. His childhood friend becomes his lover. He begins to make connections between the people in the book he receives with his own family but doesn’t understand what it means. All the women are tied together on a certain date under certain weather conditions.
The two stories collide in a powerful realization leaving Simon at the center of preventing the same fate from happening to his sister. In the end, everything he knew about his life is turned upside down and he finds himself a tragic hero. But will he sacrifice himself in order to preserve his family?
The imagery is stunning. The intensity of the relationships is beautiful. The connections among the characters are vast. It’s a very simple story but it’s a very complex fall-out. The author hits the art form right in its center, providing a wonderfully tragic tale full of intrigue, suspense and drama. You never know who to root for, but you want them all to survive the impacts. It’s one of the only books where I didn’t need to care so much about specific characters as I did for the way they all relate to one another. It’s about relationships and trust, love and power.
I generally am not a huge fantasy fan, but when I read fantasy, I want it to go all out, e.g. Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings… this book crosses a very fine line of not actually having any fantasy in it, but the underlying arc that drives the connection feels like it has fantastical elements at its core. I would have liked to see that explored more so it had a very clear purpose in the end (don’t want to give away spoilers). A little too much is left to interpretation on what really happened, and why it’s happening… which is OK, I like the unknown magic aspects, but given this was such a strong and powerful story, I wanted a little more depth to the core of “why.”
I like the author’s style and would want to read more from her. I’m curious to see what others think of this debut novel. It has so many great components and images, it’s bound to be a success. At the same time, it was missing that final piece to push it over the edge and gain immense popularity. The title, “The Book of Speculation” could have been explored more and it would have knocked it out of the park for me.