Monday Review: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
The Book of Speculation popped up on a couple of my various social media feeds and, when I dug a bit, the book jacket blurb caught my attention: drowning mermaids, carnival sideshows, librarians, and old books. Because yes to all those things and wow, how good does the author have to be to fit them all together?
The two strikes against my making my way through (before I even had it in my hands): magical realism and a literary classification. Not that either of those things are bad in and of themselves but magical realism and I have a relationship only slightly more stable than the one I share with steampunk and I’ve been on damn, that was fun reading kick I had no desire to derail by attempting to scale the lofty heights of literary fiction.
I almost returned The Book of Speculation to the library without reading it when it initially came due because my TBR pile is the height of my chin from the floor and several of the stack’s members are entries in series to which I’m already committed or by authors I’m excited to eye-gobble more words of (N.K. Jemison, Oliver Sacks, and oh, yeah, that hack *sarcasm font* Salman Rushdie).
For some reason I can only declare fate, I renewed it and jumped in and I am very, very glad I did.
The Book of Speculation is, at its core, a family saga. I like those very much (probably one of the reasons I’m drawn to novels from the subcontinent – they tend to focus on those type of themes no matter the genre or active plot). Add to that a mysterious book (not Swyler’s book, the book in the book), an errant and wandering younger sister, lies and secrets, and a bit of Eastern European mythology (a vastly underrated mythology in my opinion, and one I’ve only seen utilized by a very few authors, the prime example being Neil Gaiman in American Gods).
Like the successful Steampunk books that are the exception to my completely arbitrary and unfair rules, The Book of Speculation succeeds because it focuses on character development, on people, rather than on the conventions of the genre. Swyler gives us broken, remarkable, magical folks doing their best to survive in the tiny word the rest of us inhabit. She twists tropes, the most noticeable being her transformation of Enola (sister’s) unanticipated and markedly odd boyfriend into a member of the family, a binder who brings everyone together instead of a wedge driving them apart, who has experienced enough of life himself to understand Simon’s quirks and foibles. Who is a little bit magical himself and also doing his best to live in two very different words.
Be warned: there is time hopping. It’s marked by chapter divisions so there’s no whiplash and, in this particular case, it was an excellent way in which to make the past an active participant in the saga (which is, you know, important when one is doing the multi-generational thing). It never, at any point, felt like info-dumping, which I appreciated immensely. Swyler has a gift for executing the convention, but if the clash is something that gives you brain screamings, you may want to dip your toe in carefully.
Swyler also has an incredible way with language which lifts the book into the literary category, but never elevates it so far as to make it inaccessible. The turns of phrase are what make the book sublime rather than the use of massive words or impenetrable metaphor or imagery. There were at least two sentences/paragraphs that made me cry and I never cry in response to books. Ever. It’s not that I’m cold or distant or that I don’t get feels, it simply isn’t something I do. And I did. In my car, in the parking garage at work, at 0100 because I couldn’t drive home until I finished the last twenty pages.
I don’t want to go into too much more detail because, like the Empress Game, The Book is Speculation is a novel I think a reader should have a chance to appreciate without too much preconception clouding the experience. And reading this book is most definitely an experience. A lovely, heart breaking, crying in the car at 0100 experience.
All five fingers on the Hand of Glory for this one, friends.
Read The Book of Speculation as soon as a sport opens up in your TBR. You will not be sorry.