“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…we would bury ourselves in books until flesh and paper become one and ink and blood at last ran together.”
– Erika Swyler, The Book of Speculation
A sweeping and captivating debut novel about a young librarian who is sent a mysterious old book, inscribed with his grandmother’s name. What is the book’s connection to his family?
Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone on the Long Island Sound in his family home, a house perched on the edge of a cliff that is slowly crumbling into the sea. His parents are long dead, his mother having drowned in the water his house overlooks.
One day, Simon receives a mysterious book from an antiquarian bookseller; it has been sent to him because it is inscribed with the name Verona Bonn, Simon’s grandmother.
Simon must unlock the mysteries of the book, and decode his family history, before fate deals its next deadly hand. The Book of Speculation is Erika Swyler’s gorgeous and moving debut, a wondrous novel about the power of books, family, and magic.
There are no surprises as to why I requested a review copy of The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler… just look at that cover – it is a stunner! Of course, the story sounded wonderful too! After only a few pages I knew I was going to love the complicated tale of family and magic with an unbound love for books woven throughout.
When an old and fragile leather bound book lands on Simon’s front doorstep he is immediately taken aback by its presence, “unwrapping [it] reveals a dark leather binding covered with what would be intricate scrollwork had it not suffered substantial water damage…it’s very old, not a book to be handled with naked fingers, but seeing as it’s already ruined, [Simon gave] in to the quiet thrill of touching something with history.” With links to his family’s past, Simon’s behaviour becomes more and more obsessive in finding the answers to the seemingly coincidental deaths of all the female members of his family – on July 24th – when his erratic-behaving sister comes home within days of this date. Simon’s life is falling down around him – literally – but his need for answers overshadows everything. What is the book and what connection does it have to his family? Alternating chapters written in the past reveal the lives of the performers in Hermelius Peabody’s travelling circus. Bound together are the owner Peabody, the tarot-card reader Madame Ryzhkova and a pair of young, star-crossed lovers, Amos and Evangeline. In the end, it all comes together to examine the way our lives are inextricably linked to those around us.
I really, really enjoyed this book and I think fans of Alice Hoffman or Sara Gruen will easily be swept up in the magic of this story. There is something compelling and fascinating about the lives of circus performers and the way they are always on show. The cast of this book is quite numerous and I feel like it is one of the only downsides to the story. I felt like most of the characters were not fleshed out as much as they could have been and I found myself liking the peripheral characters a lot more than the main ones. Simon, Enola, Amos and Evangeline were not the easiest characters to get a long with. This could have been intentional on Swyler’s part but their peculiarities came across as being a little contrived. There were times when their intensity jumped off the page and others where they didn’t stand out at all. I found Simon to be a little stiff and cold; Enola’s slightly manic behaviour often lacked the dark intensity I felt it should have had; Amos never really grows up (but then maybe he is incapable of doing so) and Evangeline was every part the seducing temptress and dark-hearted enchantress she was meant to be. She was about as far from the Little Mermaid as you could possibly get! On the other hand, Madame Ryzhkova and Doyle (Enola’s boyfriend) were two characters that I enjoyed immensely. Madame Ryzhkova has an air of grace and power beneath the rough exterior; Swyler’s descriptions of her and the cards were beautiful. Doyle is an oddball but there is something about him that I found really endearing. A circus performer himself, he seems the silent and steady type, and perhaps the most at ease with who he is out of them all.
Despite not really liking the characters, they all played their part in this story and Swyler’s writing evokes some beautifully dark visual imagery. Her descriptions are often whimsical and her language can only be described as bewitching… I was completely drawn to the story. Swyler steers away from mixing fiction and fantasy however there is enough magic within the pages to stir the imagination and keep you reading. Swyler’s division of the story between past and present is balanced and masterfully woven together.
Overall, The Book of Speculation is an engaging and magical family saga that weaves its way through your imagination. Swyler seamlessly manoeuvres through generations and centuries with ease and I would definitely recommend that it be added to your TBR pile.
AUTHOR: Erika Swyler
PUBLISHER: Allen and Unwin
PUB DATE: August 2015
Thank you to Allen and Unwin for sending me a reading copy in exchange for an honest review!