Short Take: I wanted to love it.
Sometimes, I like to take a break from my usual murder/mayhem/mystery reading habits, and read something a little softer, a little gentler to the psyche. The Book of Speculation seemed like a good fit: a family saga, a possible curse that’s passed through generations, and the irresistible lure of the carnival, a world where the Electric Boy falls in love with the tarot card reader, where mermaids are real and Wild Boys live in cages.
Simon Watson raised his sister, Enola, after the deaths of their parents at criminally young ages. Their mother was a carnival mermaid who could hold her breath for minutes at a time, but still died by drowning. Their father mourned her relentlessly, ignoring all other aspects of his life, until his own death by aneurism shortly after.
As adults, Enola has joined a traveling carnival as a tarot card reader, and Simon has become a man after my own heart. He’s a librarian, an archivist, passionate about preserving books as the works of art they are. He’s also in the middle of falling in love with the girl next door, Alice McEvoy. Alice’s father, Frank, has watched over the Watson children their whole lives, and is now trying to help Simon keep the family home from deteriorating to the point it can no longer be saved.
Interwoven with the present day story is a history of Simon and Enola’s ancestors, who were part of a traveling carnival in the 1780’s. As Simon researches his family’s history, he learns a disturbing truth – that all the women on his mother’s side were carnival mermaids, and all drowned on July 24th. It’s now July 17th, and Simon has only a few days to figure out the source of the family’s curse, and save his sister.
So what’s not to love? I am having a hard time putting my finger on it. It’s possible that my literary palate, accustomed to the book equivalent of McDonald’s, is having a hard time with more refined fare, that when I’m not getting gunfights and dismemberments, I’m bored. I don’t think that’s all there is to it, though.
For one thing, some parts of the story felt meh. The decay of Simon & Enola’s childhood home was harped on way too much. A house as a metaphor for a psychological state has been done to death in most genres. And beyond the metaphorical, as a plot device, it takes up too much space. The house has a history that’s central to the story, but it’s not that big of a history. The references in every present-day chapter to the state of the house and neighbor Frank’s concern over it were as subtle as falling anvils after a while.
Then there’s the problem of Simon. He’s a jerk. He’s weak, a liar, a thief, and has convinced himself that he’s sacrificing SO MUCH for his sister. There’s nothing more annoying than someone who chooses to be a martyr for no real reason, then demands that everyone around him admire the “heroic” sacrifices he’s making. A simple conversation with Enola would’ve cleared up a lot of her expectations and freed him from his self-imposed hardships.
Despite these things, there were some utterly amazing aspects of The Book of Speculation. Erika Swyler definitely did her homework on the historical chapters, and if she didn’t, well, she faked it well enough that I couldn’t tell the difference! They were gorgeous, and the mute Amos and beautiful, haunted Evangeline are characters that won’t go away easily. The recurring images of tarot cards and their rich descriptions have me tempted to go get my own deck.
So while I can’t say that I entirely loved The Book of Speculation, I can say that I liked it a whole lot, and sometimes, that’s enough.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a five of swords.)