Erika Swyler’s debut novel, The Book of Speculation, is a complicated tale about a family whose women have for generations suffered one of the strangest curses imaginable: they all choose to end their lives by drowning. An odd thing about the string of deaths is that each of the women, because of her ability to hold her breath for an extraordinary length of time, once made her living as a circus “mermaid.’ But strangest of all is that each of them decides to do the deed on July 24.
Although Simon Watson’s mother is one of these women, he has no idea that she is just the latest in her line to have drowned herself on July 24. Simon, now a small town librarian, lives alone in the family home in which he cared for his younger sister after the death of their father. Enola (yes, she is named after the Enola Gay that carried the first atomic bomb to Japan) joined the circus as a Tarot card “seer” six years earlier and seldom makes it home now to see her brother. Simon’s life has, in fact, become rather dull and routine – but all of that changes on the day in June that he receives an unexpected package in the mail.
An antiquarian book dealer, whom Simon has never heard of, has sent him a 1700s-vintage book because of a reference the dealer found in it to a member of Simon’s family. The book, which appears to be the logbook of a traveling circus, arouses Simon’s curiosity so intensely that he decides to use all his library skills and connections to research the name found in the book. And what he finds scares him to death. Now, with July 24 fast approaching again, Simon’s life has become a race against the clock as he desperately searches for an answer that will keep his sister from becoming the latest victim of the family curse.
The Book of Speculation revisits the age-old debate of fate vs. free will. Is the course of a person’s life governed by fate, or is free will enough to move what appears to be one’s fate in a whole variety of directions? Simon does not believe that his sister has to follow in the footsteps of her mother and grandmothers. But as the days fly by, and the universe begins to conspire against him, he begins to wonder if fate holds all the best cards.
Bottom Line: The Book of Speculation is an intriguing story in which alternating chapters between the past and the present steadily crank up the tension all the way to what proves to be a rousing finish. It is easy to get lost in this one – and I did.