“Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival.
One June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned–always on July 24, which is only weeks away.
As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?”
Thoughts on the Novel: The Book of Speculation promises much in the way of an interesting story and beautiful prose. Unfortunately, while the prose is still gorgeous, the story fails to meet a reader’s expectations. For one thing, there is a lack of directness in the narrative that muddies the story as well as the characters and prevents readers from making clear connections between the two. The story is almost hypnotic in its murkiness. One must infer everything that occurs. While this can be a good feature to add to any novel, one should not have to interpret all of the action and dialogue occurring within a story.
Another thing with which readers may also find issue is Simon’s voice. For someone who is supposed to be young, he talks and acts like he is closer to retirement. There is a wariness about technology that does not ring true for a character of his age. While he uses the Internet for his job and later for further research, he displays a lack of enthusiasm which better suits someone for whom computers and the Internet did not exist for most of their life. Simon is young enough to fully adopt the technology and adapt to the way it has changed the world. Yet, he does not act that way. Everything about Simon is jarring and incongruous and very much at odds with the rest of the story.
The story, like so many others these days, switches back and forth between time periods and narrators. Simon tells the modern-day portions of the story, while the rest of the book fleshes out the story told in the circus owner’s log. Although certainly an overdone story-telling medium these days, it works fairly well in The Book of Speculation if only because one needs to understand the past in order to comprehend the present. There is still an air of repetitiveness though as this method is overtly obvious in its attempts to artificially build suspense. For a novel that is thoroughly indirect in explaining answers, the directness of the back-and-forth time and narrator shifts does not quite fit.
The main fault of The Book of Speculation is the fact that it tries too hard to be everything and nothing. It wants to be a mystery, a thriller, a coming-of-age story, and a family drama all at once, but it wants readers to work for each and every answer. One gets the impression that there are blazing neon lights informing readers of the scenes containing magical realism, but other key aspects of the story remain shrouded in secrecy. Everything about the novel is a bit too convenient, as are the character relationships. All of this combines to create a novel into which it is difficult to immerse oneself.