Book review: “The Book of Speculation”

Posted on Jul 9 2015 - 1:19pm by Alex Martin

Whenever I pass a circus on the highway, no matter how busy I am or where I am headed, I am drawn by the lights, the spinning of the Tilt-a-Whirl and the freshly-fried funnel cake smell. Similarly, it would seem that currently there is some popular literary infatuation with circuses—think “Water for Elephants” and “Night Circus.” It would seem difficult for the lures of a carnival to translate well to paper, as they engage our senses in so many ways, but somehow these authors have managed to bring this allure to their pages, drawing readers like circus goers, moths to a flame.

In this vein comes Erika Swyler’s debut novel “The Book of Speculation,” which revolves around Simon Watson, a young librarian living on the Long Island Sound. Simon’s parents are dead, his sister Enola has joined a traveling circus, and the house they all used to live in as a family, the house he still lives in every day, is quickly crumbling, being reclaimed by the Sound.

Watson’s narrative is interlaced with the story of a traveling carnival in the 1700s. When Watson receives a strange, old book on his doorstep, these two narratives begin to intersect. Throughout the book, which is actually the carnival’s log, Watson discovers that members of this old, traveling circus are somehow linked to him. He quickly uncovers that women related to him, including his mother, have a strange penchant for drowning on the date of July 24. With this day looming, Enola arrives on Simon’s doorstep, leading Simon on a race for answers from this titular book.

For a debut novel, this book contains beautiful imagery, including many fitting descriptions of the ever-alluring traveling circus and the Long Island Sound, picturesque settings that make it easy to immerse yourself in the book. Other than this, Swyler’s writing leans toward a more simplistic, plot-centered narrative style. This tempts me to place “The Book of Speculation” firmly in the “Beach Read” category, except that all of the horrific drowning incidents in the novel could easily spoil a mid-reading swim in the ocean.

Swyler’s prose, though simple as aforementioned, is effective in telling her story and does occasionally lend itself to some lovely descriptions. In places, all of the mystery in the novel demanded more complex and interesting explanations than the fairly flat ones often given. Simon and Enola, the central characters, feel