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.