Erika Swyler’s first novel The Book of Speculation has a lot of things to recommend it: a reclusive archivist, mysterious tomes, a jolly antiquarian bookkeeper, mermaids, tarot cards, beach scenes, sibling rivalry, extramarital affairs, and the strange and delicious insanity that comes from loss of employment.
There’s a bit of romance too. Also some love. But those bits are relatively beside the point. The focus is more so on the ties that bind family members through the centuries and the ways in which those ties may be disguised, hidden, or lost along the way.
When librarian Simon Watson receives a mysterious logbook detailing the exploits of a carnival that travels up and down the East Coast of North America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he finds himself on a dangerous quest into his family’s past. His discovery that the women in his family tend to commit suicide, all by the same means – drowning – and all on the same day of the year – late in July with the rising of a red tide – is made more disturbing by his sister Enola’s increasingly erratic behavior. When Enola, an expert tarot reader, comes to visit, bringing along her carnival sideshow of a tattooed boyfriend Doyle, Simon is pushed to discover the hidden meaning behind a string of tragic deaths and to their underlying mechanism before it is too late to save either of the Watson siblings.
The novel stands out as a particularly well-crafted tale. Juggling quite a few story lines and characters, it avoids bulkiness, which may be attributed to a refreshingly spare prose. Usually in these sorts of tales that may be termed “whimsical” precious space is wasted on lush description. Here, it seems that Swyler has found the reader perfectly capable of imagining the interior of a disintegrating beach house full of family history, or the trappings of a carnival trailer, or the primness of a Victorian kitchen. It’s a wise choice that leaves room for the characters to go about their business without being invaded by their own spaces.
Interspersed with Simon’s and Enola’s story is that of Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles (Peabody being the writer of the logbook Simon receives) and the intertwining fates of “Wild Boy” Amos – a mute young fellow who stumbles upon the carnival accidentally, after spending his childhood alone in the woods – and the “Mermaid” Evangeline whose mysterious origins are the subject of much conflict within the troupe.
The book’s strongest feature is Swyler’s handling of the concept of a mermaid. Evangeline is a sea creature tragically oblivious to her own nature. A “rusalka” according to the carnival’s seer Madame Rhyzkova, she has no idea of her genealogy, only that harm seems to follow her and befall those she loves. What’s also interesting is the gender flexibility. There are mermaids worldwide. It’s safe to say that all narrative traditions from Russian to Scottish to African have them. What’s less common is to see the portrayal of mermen. Yet they are there. And it is such a mythical man who seduces Evangeline’s mother. Hence the girl’s strange lung capacity, as well as her uncanny knack for attracting destructive waters. Both of these features eventually pass on to Simon and Enola’s mother Paulina, and then to the brother and sister themselves.
Most mermaid stories read like a cautionary tale against women. Watch out, they say. She’ll lead you astray and then lure you to your death. The power of the siren becomes a metonym for the power of women, which in turn must be (of course) dark and foreboding. All of that is a big part of the novel too, with Madame Rhyzkova warning everyone who will listen against the young, beautiful, and very innocent-seeming Evangeline. The fact that Swyler has placed the founding of this line of mermaids – or, at least, the nefarious parts of the founding – in the guise of a merman is simultaneously promising and problematic. On the one hand, this tactic displaces the typical narrative of women’s responsibility for the downfall of men. But at the same time, it makes the women in this story unwitting of their own power. They are at once the young maidens and the femme fatales, benefiting neither from the symbolic force of pure innocence nor from the mystical force of female empowerment/sexuality normally associated with sirens. I’m not entirely sure what to do with that. Perhaps it is solved by the end of the book. Simon and Enola both share characteristics of their mermaid mother, seemingly irregardless of their genders. And while Simon is deeply worried about Enola – that she may succumb to the weakness of the suicidal curse – it’s actually Simon who is the closest to their female relatives’ final tragic disappearing acts. So this ending also subverts the parallel narrative of the mermaid’s weakness that has built up through the centuries.
The love relationships in the book are somewhat unfortunate, Enola’s and Doyle’s being perhaps the most believable of the bunch. Amos’s and Evangeline’s connection – the cause of so many tears and so much heartache, which occupy quite a lot of real estate on the page – is somewhat awkward. At worst, this is a shortcoming of the author’s. But at best – and I’m partial to this scenario – it’s an attempt to invert romantic love with brotherly-sisterly affection. For those in the novel who enact a proper love story – Simon and Alice, Amos and Evangeline – the author affords a kind of childish affection. Whereas the great passion in fact seems to lie with Simon and Enola. That’s fine. Some of the greatest love stories are not about romantic love at all.
Swyler’s novel closes not precisely with loose ends but with many openings. And given the title, I would be disappointed if the ending did not lead to much speculation. This is perhaps why she wrote the short story “The Mermaid Girl” (released at the beginning of this month in electronic form) as a follow-up to the novel, here providing some details of the life of Enola’s and Simon’s parents. It takes place before the tragedy which begins the first novel strikes, and here the merit is not so much in plot but in capturing a kind of pivotal moment.
As an individual piece of writing, it doesn’t quite stand on its own, but it does serve as an interesting addendum to the main book. The Book of Speculation switches constantly between the fantastical world of the carnival and the mundane seaside existence of Simon, failed librarian, romantic nincompoop, and genealogy detective. In the story of Daniel and Paulina, these worlds (Paulina’s worlds) are in conflict, as she struggles to negotiate the safety and security of her life as wife and mother with the excitement of her former life as a performer. Not just a performer. A performer who cheats death every night, staying below the water for inconceivable minutes at a time.
I can only hope that “The Mermaid Girl,” shows Swyler preparing herself for the continued exploration of this beautiful and eerie cast of characters, because it seems fairly clear that their story is not finished.