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The Book of Speculation


The Book of Speculation

At first blush, it seems that the story Erika Swyler is telling in THE BOOK OF SPECULATION begins with the delivery of a book. But it soon becomes apparent that the events and circumstances in the tale are founded on the intertwined lives of people stretching back hundreds of years.

The book in question, dating back to probably the late 1700s, arrives in the mail for Long Island librarian Simon Watson. Simon lives alone in a big crumbling house that is threatening to fall into the sea. But the house, and its beachfront land, contains the sorrowful memories of the Watson family, and he cannot bear to sell it or leave. He also keeps it so that his younger sister, Enola, may someday have a home to return to. The book, sent to Simon by a specialty bookseller named Martin Churchwarry, is the log of a carnival act but seems to also contain information about Simon's mysterious ancestors. When Simon loses his library job due to budget cuts, he becomes obsessed with the book, what it can tell him about his mother's family, and the curse to which he believes his sister is soon to fall prey.

"The historical aspects of the story, centered on Amos and the carnival, are wonderful to read, full of interesting details and written with a rising tension and darkness."

THE BOOK OF SPECULATION alternates between two plots that are moving toward each other in time. In studying the book Churchwarry sent him, Simon is working out his family history backwards. The stories contained in the book itself tell of the origins of his family and what drives the young mother to suicide by drowning. The family history begins in the 1780s with the birth of a mute boy, born of his mother's affair with the proprietor of a traveling medicine show. Abandoned in the woods by his mother's husband, the young, silent boy learned to survive on his own until he was eventually informally adopted by Hermelius Peabody, the leader of a troupe of carnival performers.

Peabody and the others were kind to the boy, naming him Amos and setting him up as the show's “wild boy.” Amos is content in the carnival as the wild boy and apprentice seer until, years later, the arrival of a young woman who is striking, secretive and soaking wet. Only Madame Ryzhkova, the Russian tarot card reader and Amos' surrogate mother, saw Evangeline for what she really was: a dangerous water creature who would be the doom of Amos. The romance of Amos and Evangeline, who comes to act as the carnival's mermaid, sets the wheels in motion for the tragic family saga that will eventually bring Simon to the beach, generations later, to attempt to destroy the curse and free Enola and himself from its power.

The historical aspects of the story, centered on Amos and the carnival, are wonderful to read, full of interesting details and written with a rising tension and darkness. Swyler flounders just a bit with Simon's perspective where the narrative gets bogged down and the dialogue repetitive. Simon remains somewhat of a cipher: his motivations are less clear than other characters, and he is often indecisive. But many of individuals around him, from Enola and her sideshow boyfriend to Churchwarry and the Watsons’ neighbor, Frank, are compelling figures. There are some messy aspects of the novel: What is the deal with the horseshoe crabs? What is the real source of the curse? And it is often hard to keep track of the many members of Simon's family and their chronology, much less how they eventually connect to the living characters in the story.

Still, THE BOOK OF SPECULATION is an enjoyable read as Swyler tells an atmospheric and inventive story with hints of the supernatural.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on June 26, 2015

The Book of Speculation
by Erika Swyler

  • Publication Date: May 31, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 1250055636
  • ISBN-13: 9781250055637