Toronto Star

For the love of books


It’s natural for writers to love books, the very thing they often spend their entire life’s labour on. If we’re lucky, that love seeps into our work and shows up as books about books. Titles such as The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan to The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and others all explore the powerful, provocativ­e world of books and words, imbuing it with magic and captivatin­g those who call themselves book lovers.

The latest to join the ranks is Erika Swyler’s entertaini­ng debut, The Book of Speculatio­n. Revolving around a peculiar book, it’s a mystery and double love story, but Swyler also roots her tale in folklore, then embellishe­s the entire concoction with a travelling circus, tarot cards and curses.

One day, librarian Simon Watson finds a package on the front step of his house. Inside is a book, old and badly water-damaged. Filled with notations and drawings, it tells of a circus that roamed the United States in the late 1700s. Simon begins reading and quickly finds himself drawn into the world of the circus — and perhaps his family’s own murky past.

The book logs the company’s dayto-day activities, but much more. The appearance one lightning-filled night of a swimmer — or breathhold­er — named Evangeline is both blessing and burden: she enchants wild boy Amos, but antagonize­s Mme. Ryzhkova, the fortune teller, who’s certain Evangeline is a rusalka or water nymph, eager to lure Amos to his death with her wiles. Could there be a connection to Simon’s mother, a circus mermaid who died tragically of drowning? “There is a thread,” a friend tells Amos. “A line that runs between the living and the dead. It is thin and likes to break.”

As past and present entwine, Swyler’s twisty tale swells to explore forbidden and unrequited loves, secrets from the past that haunt and shape the present and how multiple misunderst­andings threaten her characters. She foreshadow­s what is to come with hints scattered throughout her text, just as Simon finds clues within the circus log. Much of the enjoyment here comes from guessing how everything ties together and even though some of it seems as obvious as a trail of popcorn at a fun fair, not everything is as it seems.

What happened to the circus? How did the book get damaged? More important, how did it come to be separated from its original owner? “Books like that aren’t supposed to leave a show,” Simon’s sister Enola tells him. “It’s all inside informatio­n . . .” The further into the book Simon dives, the more convinced he becomes that Enola — a breath-holder — is cursed. Enola is equally convinced something is wrong with Simon, so she immerses herself in her tarot cards in an attempt to save him.

Ominous images of water — leaking, rising, falling — saturate the book, with the threat of danger constantly seeping in. It’s clear Simon’s life is as disastrous as the state of his house, which is barely clinging to a cliff above the sea. As the story unfolds, the house grows more and more imperiled, echoing Simon’s increasing­ly dire state. (Oddly, even though he’s the character around which much revolves, Simon himself remains somewhat of an enigma.)

With its puzzling story, circus sideshow and romantic plot lines, The Book of Speculatio­n has plenty of attraction­s and will appeal to many. And if you’re a lover of books about books, you’ve got another fun tome to add to your to-be-read list. Laurie Grassi is the former books editor at Chatelaine and can be found at lauriegras­ and @LaurieGras­si.

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 ??  ?? The Book of Speculatio­n by Erika Swyler, St. Martin’s Press, $31.50.
The Book of Speculatio­n by Erika Swyler, St. Martin’s Press, $31.50.

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