Erika Swyler’s Unpredictable Water: On THE BOOK OF SPECULATION

Article by liz

by Liz Wright

My mom can’t swim. She has this fear of open water that I, raised in swimming pools in Houston summer heat, could not understand for the longest time. I’m a Cancer—a crabby, moony water sign. In college at Wellesley, I’d walk down to Lake Waban in the middle of campus to stare over the water and think about deep shit. Water is restorative, energizing to me. It wasn’t until I got older, and lived through Allison and Katrina and Ike, that I realized: unpredictable water can be deadly as well.

There is a ton of water in Erika Swyler’s THE BOOK OF SPECULATION, and not just the ocean pounding against a collapsing family home on a slowly-eroding beach. This is a novel that jumps back and forth in time, beginning with a young librarian named Simon receiving a mysterious old book: the manifest of a traveling carnival, gifted to him by an antiquarian bookseller, who found Simon’s family linked to one of the names listed therein. The matriarchs of Simon’s family are a long line of carnival “mermaids” who can hold their breath for incredible stretches, and they also have an unpleasant history of drowning on June 24—a day fast approaching. Is this why his wandering, card-reading sister, Enola, has begun acting oddly? As Simon delves into the book, digging up the pasts of all the mermaids inside, Swyler introduces the story of silent Amos and the mermaid Evangeline. As Simon tries to figure out their tie to Enola, a storm approaches his decaying home, and the water starts coming in.

Water is a connecting link through all the stories contained in these pages: the water stains erasing the pages of the mysterious book; the wood and glass tubs where generations of mermaids submerge themselves and awe the crowds; the water of the womb that ties together Simon and Enola, Amos and Evangeline. Water gives life, creates careers—and it kills. And like its omnipresent water, THE BOOK OF SPECULATION is constantly fluid, moving from past to present, overturning buried stones, bringing life and death at once. (It’s fitting: this novel is about tarot card readers, after all, and water in the tarot symbolizes emotion, change, and uncertainty.) At the center of Swyler’s book is the fairytale tension between what’s real, what’s all in your head, and what’s supernatural. Some quasi-magical things happen, some coincidences that strain credulity. Circuses with a mermaid who is suspiciously good at holding her breath, or old books discovered in older boxes that have your great-grandmother’s name written in them: these things could actually happen, true...but they could also be magic.

THE BOOK OF SPECULATION lives and breathes in those semi-enchanted spaces: the unexplainable tricks of the carnival, the strong ties of family history, the painful happenings that occur in such a pattern that it’s maybe not wrong to call them a curse. Though the novel shies away from giving us an explicit answer for some of its myths, it’s like the tarot that structures the story: what you bring to it influences what you take away. Tarot cards are a set of symbols, spread out for the reader to layer her own knowledge and interpretation on top of them. This novel is like that: a series of archetypes, stories, and symbols, arranged into a complex and beautiful tale, left open for your interpretation. If you don’t believe in curses or mermaids, you’ll read this story differently from someone who’s a little more mystic. But unlike most stories bordering on the magically-real—stories that depend on the reader bringing a specific perspective or a certain forgiveness to them—I enjoyed it on both my skeptical days and my believer days.

What makes this novel so compelling? It’s not just that the characters feel like your real neighbors, siblings, and childhood friends (Simon is such a normal and relatable hero that it felt like reading my own journal in the third person). And it’s not just that when the tide literally turns—when the ocean pounding against the house becomes impossible to ignore—every part of the ground falls out from under Simon in a way that will resonate with anyone who’s had a really, really bad few months (family friend reveals long-buried secrets about your parents, you don’t like your sister’s weird boyfriend, you can’t find a job to save your life, etc.). The thing that presses the most on you, that makes this novel so easy to fall into, is the omnipresent sense of deadline. Simon’s house is falling apart, the encroaching ocean gets closer each day, and his options for saving it are few and far between. As cracks appear in the building, the floors open up, and the day his mother and grandmother drowned approaches, the tension in this story pulls tighter than carnival tightropes.

Trying to save his sister, trying to decide whether the house is worth saving—Simon’s dilemmas drag us deep into the novel. I was delighted to jump between present and past; the whole point of this novel is that the past is alive, so getting to meet the actors who spawned this family tragedy feels only natural. THE BOOK OF SPECULATION is a saga in the old style: families, mysteries, love and death—a thousand tiny droplets leading to a storm of biblical proportions. This novel deserves to be on the shelf with all the other crackled-page, leather-bound tomes that inspired it—and in fact, author Erika Swyler hand-bound and aged the original copies of the manuscript that she sent to publishers. Appropriate for a story that appreciates, and pays wonderful homage to, the tactile and bewitching magic of books.

The Book of Speculation Cover Image
ISBN: 9781250054807
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: St. Martin's Press - June 23rd, 2015

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