Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99
Many, many years ago I enrolled in a fiction writing class at the CAE. It was the very first writing class I’d ever been to and I can’t recall if I learnt anything useful but I did learn that some people are just not very nice.
Going around the circle for introductions and interests, I must have said I enjoyed fantasy. One woman decided that it would add to the conversation to say she “didn’t understand why people read and wrote fantasy and that they must have really boring empty lives if they need to fill it with fairies and whatever. No offence”. It was the “no offence” as she glanced at me that rankled so and frankly, if I was the sort of person that enacted in the physical world what went on in my mind, that woman would have walked out of there with a pen stuck in her eye.
Which brings me in the most round-a-bout of ways to The Book of Speculation. This little exchange—which has stayed with me since—was dredged up as I read this debut novel from Erika Swyler. The book mixes family drama in a small neighbourhood, complicated family history and throws in a deadly curse for good measure. I couldn’t help but think what that woman would have thought reading this softly tense family saga and suddenly coming across the whole magically cursed Tarot cards thing. Well, Ms Judgy McJudge? Too much happening in your overly full and exciting life to read on now that something weird is going on, or are you going to keep reading?
Simon Watson is a librarian, books are his thing. So when bookseller, Martin Churchwarry, buys an antique book on spec and sends Simon an old carnival ledger containing his grandmother’s name, Simon is drawn into an increasingly feverish investigation to seek out the history of the book and consequently his own family. In doing so he uncovers a more sinister part of his family’s past and that his mother was not the only member of the family to drown in strange circumstances on July 24th.
Simon’s investigation takes us from the Long Island Sound where he lives in his dead parent’s house—perched dangerously on the edge of an eroding cliff above the sea—to a travelling show in the 18th century. Slowly the sea mist clears as the past meets up with the present and the family tree reveals a curse that is dangerously close to being enacted again. The familial threads are tied up neatly, those that reach out from the past of the carnival ledger to meet up with the ones found in the age of Google and database networks. Unless the source of the curse is uncovered, the family tree, with its drowned carnival mermaids, might suffer another watery death as the 24th of July approaches and Simon’s sister Enola makes an unexpected visit after years away.
The Book of Speculation had that rare quality of what I’ll call “invisible reading”. A style where the technicality of the writing is so good it doesn’t even feel like you’re reading. I realise that makes no sense and sounds almost like I’m describing the suspension in a car advert but there it is.
There is no grit on the lens, nothing to obscure the story itself. What could have been a terribly sentimental sopfest* is a measured piece whose characters seem all the more real for their unsentimentally. But while the unsentimental aspect pleased me greatly, the characters themselves ofttimes suffered from being slightly hollow. While Simon’s arc led to a believably heightened level of emotional crisis, any moments of high emotion from the peripheral characters seemed almost forced. Perhaps this is a symptom of them being secondary characters or perhaps within Simon’s point of view, it is he that cannot connect truly with others.
While, on reflection, the characters are not as well-fleshed out as they could be, the story itself captivated me from beginning to end. The details of the mystical elements were not explicitly spelled out, but I enjoyed the real-world mystery with its sprinkling of supernatural nixie droplets.
*My usual response when I see the words family drama etc. I assumed this would be a whole lot of navel gazing and sentimental reflection. I can even picture the Hollywood version now—cue romantic upbeat music here and then dramatic turn to sombre notes here.