Another wonderfully spell-binding debut novel for the 2015 year has been added to the shelves of bookstores. Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation is one fans of circus fiction will be drawn to and fans of mystery will find intriguing.
Life has not been kind to Simon Watson. He lost his mother, a circus mermaid, to the sea and his father died shortly after her when he was a child. His younger sister, Enola, ran off to join the circus as a tarot card reader. He lost his job as a librarian due to budget cuts. And his family home on the coast, where he lives alone, is slowly falling into the ocean. Shortly after losing his job, he receives a book from an antique bookseller who claims the book has Simon’s family history within. Sure enough, the book tells of a traveling carnival from the 1700s where a mermaid, a family ancestor, drowned. He begins to speculate that their might be a curse on the women in his family and, dreading Enola might meet the same watery grave, sets out to solve the mystery of the curse over his family before it is too late.
Swyler is a blossoming new writer with a lot of talent to offer. Her writing style is beautifully executed, forming simple, yet compelling sentences, and she most certainly knows how to play with words (i.e. “A heavy volume, Binding Charms and Defixione has an almost sinister look to it, a thick black leather binding, title embossed but not gilded, the pages soft with years of oil from fingertips of the curious” [page 122]). Another intriguing thing about Swyler’s writing is how refreshingly real she writes her stories. She shows the problems in life (both during the present and in the past) and how human beings deal with and solve these problems. And problems are a big focus of The Book of Speculation.
As aforementioned, the character readers follow during the present lost his job as a librarian due to budget cuts. As the book progresses, he is forced to perform the extremely aggravating and incredibly tedious task of looking for a job. Much of the human population can relate to this problem: whether it is someone who was laid off or a graduate fresh out of college, it is not easy to find a job nowadays. Swyler beautifully expresses the feelings of uselessness and the frustration one feels in trying to find a job through Simon and shows how difficult it truly is to find a job. More problems arise for Simon as, shortly after he loses his job, he receives the book that may predict the end of his younger sister’s life.
These are but a few of the problems Simon must face during the book’s entirety, but problems are not just limited to the present day. Swyler jumps back and forth with each chapter between present day and the 1700s where the reader then follows a mute boy who has no home and is asked to join a circus to be the Wild Boy. He then falls in love with the carnival’s new mermaid who is hiding a big secret from everyone. The jumping back and forth between past and present is a bit confusing to follow at first, but as soon as readers pick up on Swyler’s pattern, it is actually an interesting way to tell the story. With the constant jumping, readers will want to keep reading for they want to know, while they are reading the events transpiring in one time, what is happening in the other time.
For her debut, Swyler has impressed. With her beautiful, flowing writing style, she tells a compelling story that will keep readers wanting more with each passing chapter. While it is difficult to write a story that frequently jumps back and forth between time periods, Swyler gave each time period an equal amount of time to captivate readers and to make readers fall in love with both stories being told. The Book of Speculation is a wonderful addition to book collections of circus lovers and mystery seekers and fans of Swyler’s first shall have to wait to see what she plans for her next.
Originally published at www.examiner.com on August 26, 2015.