Reviewed by Phillip Hewlette
The Book of Speculation
By Erika Swyler
2015, ISBN 978 1 78239 765 6, 352 pages, Paperback
In this show-stopping debut, Erika Swyler delivers, in two separate but indelibly linked narratives, a captivating story of one man’s desperate race against time to discover the origins of a mysterious curse that has plagued the women in his family for generations.
His parents long dead, his estranged sister living a life on the road, Simon Watson lives alone in the family home. His life is falling apart just like the house, perched precariously on the cliffs on Long Island Sound. He remembers his father but it is the memory of his mother’s suicide in the waters below that constantly haunt him.
Out of the blue, Simon receives a very old book, a journal, from a bookseller, who sent it to him because of the name, Vera Bonn, inscribed within. She is Simon’s grandmother. As the journal reveals its secrets, Simon begins to understand that even as time marches on human emotions do not change. When he convinces himself that his sister carries the genes of the deadly curse things turn from bad to worse.
The author transports the reader with ease from one century to another and demonstrating her consummate writing skill paints a vivid picture of the times, places and people that are united in the telling of this wonderful tale.
As the story within the journal unfolds we find a colourful band of performers eking out their lives in a travelling circus in 1800’s America. The characters come alive as each plays their part:
The band was presided over by Hermelius H. Peabody…..who thought the performers and animals……were instruments for improving minds and fattening his purse.
When Peabody introduces newcomer Amos, the ‘Wild Boy’ to the troupe you can almost hear the murmur of voices above the sound of the crackling fire:
Peabody led him between the circled wagons to where a fire burned and members of the troupe took turns roasting rabbit and fish. Darkish men some might have called gypsies played dice; Susanna, the contortion girl, stretched and cracked her bones against a poplar tree, while Nat sat cross-legged, holding the miniature horse in his lap stroking its stiff hair with a dark hand.
As Simon searches for clues to the mystery he becomes aware of more secrets. Why does Frank insist on lending him money to save the house from crumbling in to the sea? What was the relationship between Frank and Simon’s father? When the truth finally bubbles to the surface Simon can see only one path; one that will drive him to the edge of reason.
The one thing that did annoy me was the occasional use of profane language. I can understand a writer’s desire to faithfully portray a character in the story but in such a beautifully written work such as this I wonder if another way could be found.
However, this is a book that once opened cannot be put down till the last satisfying page. Erika Swylers elegant style shines through in a way that will leave the reader longing for the release of her second novel. If it is anything like this one, Erika is destined for the best-seller lists.
About the reviewer: Phillip Howlette lives near Newcastle New South Wales Australia and enjoys writing, painting and going for quite short walks. He has self-published short sci-fi stories and a beginner’s guide to meditation on Amazon under the pen name of Douglas Phillips. He is a member of a small creative writer’s network and continues to write stories every week.