Marvelous Reading: Erika Swyler’s, The Book of Speculation

Swyler

Early reviews have compared Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation to The Night Circus and Water for Elephants. While it contains elements of both — magic, marvels, love and mystery — Swyler’s book stands firmly on its own as a remarkable feat of storytelling. Bold in its plot, stunning in its language, The Book of Speculation kept me reading, thoroughly entranced, and hours past my bedtime. This is a book that comes alive, a book that stays, stitched like tattoo ink, enduring.

Simon Watson, the main character, is losing it — his house is tumbling into the Sound, his job is snared in budget cuts, and his days are tangled in the losses of his past. On the surface, he’s a young librarian, a dutiful brother, a quiet friend. But Simon is also a breath-holder, a swimmer who can suspend his breathing underwater for an impossible ten minutes. His mom could do eleven — before she drowned herself when he was young. Before she left him with a father paralyzed by grief and a two-year-old sister, Enola. When their father dies years later, Simon raises Enola on his own, holding his breath in life, as he can underwater, in order to support her. He remains suspended, stuck in time and place, while Enola leaves to join the circus as a tarot reader. A fortune-teller. But, in this family, fortunes are slippery and shadowed. Curses are real. And the future, like their history, is a swelling flood, capable of drowning.

As Simon’s present crumbles, he receives a book that drags him back into the past. Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles is part circus-show account book and part diary, interspersed with sketches. It contains both the everyday details of a traveling show and a deepening mystery involving Simon’s family history — and his sister’s future. Simon and Enola come from a long line of breath-holders, mermaids, women who all drowned themselves on July 24th. As that date draws near — and Enola grows more fragile and edgy — Simon realizes that he can no longer save his sister by remaining still. He must solve the riddles of their past and break the curse that binds them.

These twin narratives, past and present, mirror each other with subtle brilliance, through plot, character, and theme. They are linked through family lines and repeating cycles of love, loss and betrayal. Both probe what it means to be present for someone you love, what happens when a love goes wrong, how to carry guilt and put it down, and how to reclaim history. There are many ways to drown, here, many ways to disappear, to curse, to heal, to make — and break — a home. These patterns weave an elegant bridge between reflected worlds. Swyler’s control of storylines is masterful and deft.

Her characters are vivid and enchanting: a lightning boy tattooed with tentacles; a scarred acrobat and thief; a mute boy who can vanish; a grandmother with a steel heart and wooden spoon; a Russian fortune teller on the run from Selkies; a boatswain with deep secrets; and a book dealer with a past that links them all. They are, at once, both magical and deeply human, flawed and striving. There are no easy heroes here, no cookie-cutter figures. Instead, Swyler gives us people strung with magic — some have “half a soul,” and others have too much, but all of them are daring. All of them are vibrant.

Early in the novel, Simon says, “All folktales have a price,” and there are many prices paid here. Swyler knows her history, and her fairytales — not the Disney brand, but older stuff. The witch, the woods, the water that devours. In The Book of Speculation, she chronicles the price, but reminds us to look deeper, to watch the story dazzle, to find something else inside the depths, the drowning: “a hope so bright it blisters.” The best novels show us not just who we are, but who we were and might become. They are mirrors that work to shove us from our skins — to live a different life, to imagine elsewhere. All the maybes. These books become a part of who we are and what we carry, what sustains us. Swyler’s novel works this type of magic. The Book of Speculation is a wonder, both marvelous and true.

 

Sprinkles for Max: A Wing-Feather Fable

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There were at least fifty coffee shops inside the city, and Max knew every one. If he heard about a new café, read the advert in the paper, he couldn’t rest until he’d tried it. He’d grab his Suze’s hand and they’d be off, a fedora and a pillbox hat, old folks on adventures.

He’d taken her to artsy joints with painted stools, where the waitresses had more metal in their faces than a scrap yard. There were yuppity salons with complicated menus, and bolt-hole dives, sludge in cups marked up with lipstick. Once, he’d brought her to a shop where every brew was made from beans extracted out of poop — elephant droppings, cat turd, or the crap of rare, endangered birds. Together, they had tried it all.

Now the sound of “widower” sat heavy on his tongue, and coffee wouldn’t wash it. He still went to all the shops — she might be keeping tabs on him — but everything was grey in taste and scent and texture. Max was never thirsty.

And then the Daily Grind appeared, a block from Max’s building. The trouble was, he’d never seen it, though the shop looked well-established. Hell, it looked as old as sin. And the strangest part of all? As soon as Max walked in, they hired him, right there on the spot. Before he knew it, he was in an apron, carrying a tray and taking orders with a fuchsia pen.

The clientele looked stunned. Each patron mumbled that the shop had just appeared. Out of the blue. They craned their necks to see the murals on the walls, the fairytales and myths — a wolf, a firebird, a castle, phoenix, unicorns and mice. The ceiling chimed with small glass balls, and the floor was made of marbles, pressed together into patterns.

The kitchen pumped out cakes and pastries, café mocha, cappuccinos and good old-fashioned brew, all with the flavor of happiness distilled, tailor-made for every heartache, nostalgia or inertia. Max delivered each libation and confection and then watched the slumping faces lift, transform, alight.

By the time the shop closed down at midnight, he felt as if he’d worked for years, shuffling through someone else’s dream come true. He collapsed into a chair decked out in feathers, and put his head into his heads. No Suze. Not now. Not ever.

When Max looked up, he had a cupcake and a mug, set out on a doily. The cupcake had a lot of sprinkles. The coffee was bright blue. Max shrugged. He took a bite, a sip. He scratched his head. The corners of his mouth twitched up. The cook gave him a wink. “Coming back tomorrow?” Max nodded, feeling lighter by the minute. When he put on the old fedora and headed for the door, he could swear he felt the pressure of Suze’s fingers on his forearm. Coffee really was a marvel. Outside the Daily Grind, the city caught his chuckle, like a swirl of cinnamon on foam.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

The Stone-Bound: A Wing-Feather Fable

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They chose the former cable building because it was already wired for alarms. At first, the sirens howled every night, hours of screeching panic that shattered dreams and made a city of insomniacs. The noise was so hellish, so rending, that hospitals were deluged with fatal heart attacks. Babies born within those months have a peculiar tonal deafness. They are terrible musicians, prone to tics and schizophrenic mood disorders.

The sirens slowed, then stopped, once the executions started. By the time the jails were empty, swept clean and disinfected, the noise was just a bitter memory no one wished to claim. And if the city had completely lost its capacity to dream, no one talked about that either. No one talked about the Portal.

They were expected to forget, but Roslyn Withers did nothing but remember. She worked inside the building, Level One cafeteria staff, mopping floors and swiping tables with a noxious disinfectant. Her mother’s idea, from start to end. There were a lot of children of defectors in the building’s lower ranks, trying, like Roslyn, or her mother, to scrub the tarnish off their names. They all passed each day beneath the Guardians. Roslyn wondered if the others felt those eyes like bullets, aiming for the slightest tremble in the knees.

Did they know she could remember? Worse yet, had everyone else forgotten, truly, the world before the purge? All the history books described a time of chaos, promiscuity and indulgence dressed up in the guise of freedom. Too many choices, too much diversity and variation. The Guardians came and trimmed it all, cut away the random and the fluid, sent the ebb and flow of “freedom” to a place they conjured and contained, the world beyond the Portal.

(Roslyn heard the pulse of it, the steady, throbbing hum of exiled opportunity. It must be in her blood, she thought. After all, her father . . . well, he had failed like all the rest, jailed and hung, bodies swinging from the gates. )

Now, everyone was blessed with an ordered, tidy, metric life. (Pale, she thought, and shriveled.) People understood their place. No more striving, multiplicity, or indecision. No more pesky choices, like bees along the nape.

Roslyn wondered why they didn’t simply close the gate, seal it up with mortar, blast the opening to dust. Why leave the weak, the wounded, open to temptation? But, then again, she was her father’s daughter. Roslyn understood. This was the final, quiet stage of culling, a lure to catch the ones who are unwilling to forget.

Once or twice a year, alarms still split the night. She waits for them to stop completely. She waits for a silence that is definite and smug. In her dreams, she sees the Guardians complacent, unaware that she is coming. In her dreams, she splits the surface of the portal like an overripe and rotten fruit. She is drenched and nearly drowned in everything released. In her dreams, she sees the stone eyes weep.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

Star Dust: A Wing-Feather Fable

Fables-41 Aileen Murphy’s brother was stone-cold sober when he lost his left hand and his faith in the machinery of a fortune cookie plant. The sobriety, if nothing else, was entirely Aileen’s fault. Seamus was an amiable enough drunk, never fought or whored. Deep in pints, he bought his sister roses, knock-off Hermes scarves, and a white mouse in a gilded cage. It was the mouse that forced her hand, red eyes and midnight chitters. Their mother always said that nothing good could come of rodents. Aileen had to act.

Later, she wished she’d never lit those candles at St. Vincent’s, whispering her brother’s name three times into the flames. The miracle came quickly, Seamus off the drink and even wearing ties to work. He’d gotten her the job at Lucky’s, half a life ago, flipping small, soft pancakes from griddle to conveyor, watching as they vanished toward the plates that pressed them into butterflies. Seamus worked the batter vats, lifting, pouring, mixing, the muscles of his arms like seams within a rock.

They were the remnants of a family, sole survivors of a quiet dying-off. Each night, Aileen pressed her ear down to the floorboards and listened to the hollow clink of bottles. Once the miracle occurred, she was gratified by silence. It was hard to not feel smug.

Three weeks sober, then three months, and Seamus started reading brochures from the night school. He was buoyant on the line, and management took notice. Aileen felt their mother smiling down at her from Heaven.

Once, when she was barely out of diapers, her Da had pointed at the stars and described to her a world in constant motion, spinning planets, twirling suns, a vast, incomprehensible ballet. This is what she thinks of on the morning Seamus nearly dies. How many times before he fixed the line with Guinness in his veins.

In her memory, it happens in slow motion, his fingers in the gears, the awful stutter-grind and crack, a weight released, a massive lurch and bellow, fragmented bone, a slick of blood, strings of ligament and muscle.

In reality, the shearing-off was quick, a nearly-instant snap. The sirens keened, red lights swirled in puddles, and the paramedics carted him away like potatoes in a famine.

Seamus lived, but lost the hand that had delivered roses, scarves, a mouse. It was not what she intended, when she bent her knees to pray.

Back inside the shelter of the church, Aileen noticed shadows reaching, fingers splayed into the light. Stained glass glittered like a coded map of truth. Arches rose and crossed. Seamus sat beside her in the pews, quiet, sober, bandaged. There were so many pieces of this world that she didn’t understand — the hollowness of bird bones, the single-mindedness of ants, fortunes cast inside a butterfly of pancake. Miracles and mice. It was all fallout from the stars, she saw, bits of straw and sweepings from the dance floor, small confetti sifting, music, dusted from the skies.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

Girls with Pens (Hippocampus)

“Writing,” by Kim Rempel

“Stories shape belief — about who we are and what we can become, about our history and culture. They are the stitchery of self, the seams that either liberate or bind us. Change the story, change the world.  If our girls grow up on tales of hapless maidens waiting for a knight in armor, then they will never lift the sword themselves.”

Please visit the June issue of Hippocampus for the rest of my essay on Disney princesses, Sheryl Sandburg, and the power of our words.