Miss Emily

A poet’s voice and humanity (Amherst, MA and Dublin, Ireland, 1866): For a blog called Enchanted Prose, Miss Emily is a literary standout.

Irish poet/author Nuala O’Connor’s artful American debut about the reclusive Victorian poetess, Emily Dickinson, is packed with poetic prose (“I am an eyeglass in the eyrie.”) From a writerly point-of-view, it also shines because of the attention paid to the solitary craft of writing (the “writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat”); the importance of words (“words are my sustenance”); and the uniqueness of words (“each word solitary”). “Chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words” please her – and us.

This slender novel delivers a strong punch by packing in so much poetic prose the reader hears Emily’s tender voice, feels her unconventional spirit, senses her impassioned soul. It starts off reposeful, then intensifies, answering affirmatively to a question Emily poses: “Can calmness and energy be bedfellows?”

Short chapters, with titles written in “inked curlicues” suggestive of Emily, move back and forth between Emily’s voice and a second female’s: fictional Irish maid, Ada Concannon, 18 years old and newly immigrated from Dublin, Ireland. Ada finds work at the Dickinson’s home, Homestead, in Amherst, Massachusetts, “a town of light and brick.” Ada is made up but she’s true to the historical record, as the largest source of American housemaids in the 19th century hailed from Ireland. Ada allows O’Connor to softly transport Ireland to America for readers, pointing out the “openness” of Dubliners compared to the tight-lipped nature of New Englanders. (There’s “no better secret-keeper than a Dickinson.”) Ada also provides a vehicle for airing prejudices against the Irish. Emily befriends and defends her, a caring friendship disapproved by her family, most notably her brother Austin, who cautions “all Irish people lie” and are melancholy.

Emily Dickinson’s Homestead
Photo by Daderot [Public domain]

But for Emily, Emerald Ada is “all cheer.” So imagining Emily in a personal relationship with the charming Ada, who “enlivens” Emily, feels morally right. She also shows us an unfamiliar side to Emily – the duality of her passions. Emily “wants to share love” yet she’s only at peace in solitude.

Inventing a tragedy that strikes Ada and affects a handsome Irishman she’s fallen in love with, Daniel Byrne, forces Emily to venture outside her inner sanctum (“I am in the habit of the house, and it is in the habit of me”) to help Ada and Daniel. Austin’s “detached legal mind” may disappoint Emily, but he takes risks, gets involved too. Knowing how dearly Emily Dickinson cherished her freedom and safety, her act of selflessness and kindness is extraordinary.

Miss Emily takes place over a year in Emily and Ada’s lives. We meet Emily in her late-thirties, when she’s chosen to become that “Woman in White,” dressing only in white. (“If I am pure in dress, my mind may empty itself of all concerns, and that will make it easier for me to write.”) She may be lonely (“the outside world does not bring me joy”), but her inner world (the “landscape of my invention – poem lands”) brings passion and solace.

O’Connor’s Emily instructs us not to be fooled by her singular white attire, for “inside I will roar and soar and flash with color.” And so she does, making this Emily accessible. She craves sweets and loves baking (“I love the kitchen on a dreary day”), the pleasure enhanced by Ada, who perceives even butter as “exalted.”

Besides poetry, this inwardly colorful Emily is passionate about gardening, nature, and “the only audience my heart trusts,” her sister-in-law Susan. She’s so much closer to Sweet Sue than her cat-loving, also single sister, Vinnie, content with housekeeping chores. Emily idolizes Sue. Sue may not fully understand Emily’s poetry – “I love to riddle” – but she’s so unlike Emily’s mother who “would not understand the demands of the mind,” a Victorian wife “who obeys.”

O’Connor handles Emily’s intimate affection for Sue delicately. “I love you from a distance,” Emily says. (An emotional distance as Austin’s family home, Evergreens, was so close to Emily’s the two seem almost one; both homes now living museums.) Was her love deeper than sisterly? There’s no direct suggestion although Sue (mother of two and civic-minded) expresses discomfort with Emily’s profound adoration. Still, we perceive Emily’s choice of a single life as a revolt against being “regularized.” She yearns to “pursue the things that please me,” which makes us smile knowing many things pleased cloistered Emily.

This Emily is likened to the Irish, who “put great store in spinning a narrative around every small thing.” She’s also a deep thinker, questioning the existential meanings of life. (“Each dash I create is a weight, a pause, a question.”) There’s no place for religion in Emily’s worldview, unlike devout Ada, preferring science to help explain the unexplainable.

Ada’s Irish voice brings prose that delights too. My favorite word of hers is figairy. A light, rhythmic sound, but I had no idea what it meant. It’s Irish slang for whimsical, thoughtless. The opposite of this serious, well-researched, thoughtful novel!

For all the writers who dread a white piece of paper, Emily inspires. Blankness “seduces” her. It’s also inspiring to read ordinary things expressed poetically: The snow of Amherst becomes “sugared Amherst.” Nightfall turns into “twilight fingers Amherst with its tawny glove.” Dried fruit described as “crinoline hips and the flesh of candies.”

Miss Emily inspired me to start reading a modern-day memoir about singlehood: Kate Bolick’s recently published, well-written Spinster. Bolick, an editor for The Atlantic, aspired to be a poet. Like Emily, she feels “most alive when alone.” Interestingly, her research shows that the largest group of single women in the 19th century lived in Massachusetts. Her discussion of single women moves from the derogatory to the positive: from her own “spinster wish” to a 19th century, short-lived term, “bachelor girl,” and then to Henry James’ depiction of the “New Woman.” In 1913, this woman was deemed “a very splendid sort of person.” Just like the Emily we meet in this novel.


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The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach 2

The choices we make in love and war (Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, England, France; 1941-1944): The title and cover of The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach suggest a light, beachy read. But if you’re familiar with Pam Jenoff, bestselling author of Holocaust-themed novels, a former State Department Foreign Service Officer who specialized in Holocaust issues, you expect more. More is what you get.

Grand hotels lined the beaches of Atlantic City, New Jersey in its heyday in the 1940s. Leading up to and during WWII, “Camp Boardwalk” – the nation’s first seaside boardwalk – also symbolized America’s home front: recruiting and training soldiers (later converting hotels into recuperative centers). So, this beach setting befits the summer release of Jenoff’s newest, multi-themed WWII historical novel – her first emotionally centered on mostly American soil.

Told through the sweetly sad voice of a teenage immigrant girl, Adelia Monteforte, over three transformative years as she navigates her identity, family, love, and aspirations. The emotional complexities of her coming-of-age story move through multiple locales, but Chelsea Beach is where it all begins and tugs at her heart.

Imagine being sixteen years old, pushed onto a ship from your childhood home in Trieste, Italy by your politically active parents trying to save you from Fascism. That’s how we meet Addie, a “gawky girl” petrified of the seas she’s lived by. For most of the novel, her parents’ whereabouts are unknown. She’s been shipped to her Aunt Bess and her Uncle Meyer’s home, located in a self-segregated Jewish neighborhood in south Philly, one of a “messy patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods.” Bless their hearts but the childless relatives are outsiders to parenting the way Addie is an outsider in America. Understandably, her voice, braver than she thinks, is melancholy.

Like so many families, they summered on the Jersey shore, where neighbors mingled, not defined by ethnicity or social class. This explains where, when, how, and why Addie can so easily become wrapped up in the fabric of an Irish Catholic family of four boys, the Connallys, when Jews and Catholics kept to themselves back in Philadelphia (and elsewhere).

Addie grows to depend on the Connally family, in spite of her independent spirit. Mrs. Connally treats her like the daughter she never had. The boys treat her like brothers, except maybe there’s more going on than that. This is, after all, a love story – or love stories – as much as a war story.

Lower Chelsea Beach, Atlantic City, NJ
c. 1930-1945, via Boston Public Library

The novel starts off looking back in time. We’re told the Connallys “lived in a place where their grief would always be as raw as the day it all happened,” so early on the reader knows something momentous occurred at Chelsea Beach. Which is why Addie’s deeply rooted memories of this summer place are both happy and pained. They haunt her – grief, guilt, survivorship, and forgiveness are among the novel’s powerful themes.

Each of the Connally boys plays a role. The two older boys are Charly and Liam; the two younger are twins, Robby and Jack. The golden boy whose “smile lifted the world” is Charly, protective, bold, destined to do something heroic. Liam, with his “taunting grin,” has the darker side. He, like Addie, feels different.

Addie is the type who “finds the dark spaces between the light, even in the happiest moments.” She’s unsure of herself, unsure of her attractiveness yet romantically attracted to and entangled with more than one man. “We can’t always help who we love” is a repeated refrain, which increasingly takes on greater significance as Addie tries so hard to run away from her memories.

The first place she runs to after Chelsea Beach is Washington, DC, with its “bland, antiseptic feel,” where she finds work at the Washington Post. For reasons that constitute spoilers, suffice it to say that she runs away again, impetuously, desperate to go someplace “where no one knew me.”

This time she makes her way to London, after the Blitz but before America entered the war. What a foolish or brave thing for her to do, given why this Jewish girl was sent to America in the first place and events transpiring in Europe. There’s a vivid scene with a Polish citizen where she hears firsthand about the atrocities being committed against Polish Jews. The author was stationed in Krakow, enlarging the potency of the brief encounter.

Compared to America where the war felt “hidden,” in London war is visible everywhere: air raid attacks, bomb shelters, food rationing, and the “knackered” faces of ordinary, stoic citizens. Addie becomes especially emotionally affected seeing so many mothers without their children – Britain’s historic evacuation – reminding Addie of what her mother did for her. But since she’s also not the type to “look away from unfairness,” count on her to do something about this to make a difference.

My favorite romantic part of Addie’s story happens when she arrives at 19 Fleet Street, the London-based office of the Washington Post, where she’s managed to get herself transferred. Her keenness about issues and language skills land her a coveted job, outside the secretarial pool, alongside the “too good-looking” Teddy White, the only British journalist on the staff. His movie-star looks, “easy style,” and utter goodness make us wish he was based on a real historical figure but Jenoff tells us he’s not.

Teddy is immediately drawn to Addie. A former ladies man, with Addie he’s devoted, selfless, generous. For all these reasons and his upbeat attitude about winning the war now that America has entered into it, we immediately like him. His adoration for Addie wins us over with romantic lines like this: “My whole life I’ve felt as though I was writing the story. With you for the first time I feel a part of it.” If only Addie felt the same way! Yes, she appreciates him but remember she’s plagued by memories back at Chelsea Beach. You so wish she’d find a girlfriend to tell it to her like it is!

Jenoff wisely offers Addie – and us – one. Another character who feels so historically real, but apparently she’s made up too. Claire is Churchill’s niece, who lost her parents and was raised by another family (Churchill’s), echoing Addie’s history. Glamorous Claire can hobnob with the upper class, which she does, but she gravitates to Addie because she’s “real.” No-nonsense Claire is “fearless, intense and ready to fight,” which she does when she joins the Auxiliary Territorial Services, the women’s branch of Britain’s Army.

At this juncture, we behold how the pieces of Addie’s character formed from her life experiences and life choices in Atlantic City, Washington, DC, and London resonate with the war direction of her story. For circumstances do propel Addie on a dangerous mission in France.

From here, Addie’s story circles back as the reader knew it would from the opening. There are subtle clues to the ending, which bind the novel’s themes. Up until the very end, the question you’ll be asking is: Can Addie – Can We – ever really go home again?


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Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper

Why you don’t want to have it all (Hollywood, present): I was going to start off by suggesting that if you’re in the mood for a clever, inside-Hollywood, beachy read, then Hilary Liftin’s fictional celebrity tell-all fits the bill. Until I read an auspicious, refreshing, apologetic interview with the founder of the online Gawker Media Group that includes Gawker, which describes itself as the “definitive gossip sheet for followers of entertainment.” It highlighted why the messaging behind Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper is more than that.

Gawker’s Nick Denton essentially wrote my lead-in by promising to deliver stories that are “nicer and less tabloid in its sensibilities” – precisely what Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper is. Similarly, when he said he’s now “much more sensitive to the children and families of those who get caught up in stories,” he pinpointed the catalyst that led to Lizzie’s memoir. When he cited Gawker as “an intelligent tabloid that covers juicy stories that show how the world works,” he identified the contents of Lizzie’s memoir – how Lizzie’s world changed almost overnight when she went from being a free, happily-successful, single TV star close to her parents and best friend to a tortuously controlled, married “IT” couple. And when he cautioned that “celebrities and the subjects of stories are people just like us,” he hit the emotional nerve of Lizzie’s plight and the novel.

Denton, then, could just as easily be commenting about Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper than lamenting a troubling, embarrassing, very private (alleged) story about a public persona. It caused candid reflections and re-calibration. Will Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper have the same positive effect? We can only hope so.

I’m not one of the million followers of Gawker, so I wasn’t even aware of the controversy that precipitated Denton’s thoughtful interview until I read the New York Times piece. My purpose in sharing his commentary is because it illuminates why this Hollywood novel is different than most others I’ve read.

For one thing, it is “nicer.” Written by a real-life Hollywood ghostwriter of bestselling celebrity memoirs (Miley Cyrus, Tori Spelling, Mackenzie Phillips, others), Liftin’s fiction demonstrates a high regard for the awesome responsibility a celebrity memoirist has. The goal shouldn’t be to sensationalize or scandalize. A more exemplary approach would adopt Lizzie’s, whose goal was to simply tell a “story about the choices we make every day, and how those choices make us who we are.” By talking to us from her heart, she can be “so goddamned corny.” She’s fine with that, and so am I, because Lizzie voices genuine emotions and the only values that ought to matter. All the money in the world that her super-rich, super-famous, super-powerful movie star husband amassed couldn’t buy the freedom to choose and do the most commonplace things in life. Without these, your soul suffers.

It’s also “nicer” because the author created a character who really was the proverbial “girl-next door” (from Chicago), who became “famous for my girl-next-door character, my girl-next-door upbringing, and my girl-next-door looks.” Almost magically, she was transformed from an “IP” to a “VIP” when she becomes the girlfriend, then wife and mother of the seemingly perfect, handsomest, biggest movie star in the world, Rob Mars. (“I was known; he was worshipped.) Sweet Lizzie is not the type to stoop low and dirty to explain what went wrong in their hugely publicized marriage. Which means the prose doesn’t shoot for the jugular or the vulgar. It would have been so acceptable to go that route. It’s Hollywood, after all. Yeah for Lizzie and Liftin for taking the high road!

Lizzie’s star-struck romance with Rob Mars (“I was the clichéd princess, swept off my feet”) is an up-close look at what celebrities mean when they say they want to protect their children. Motherhood changes us all. Lizzie’s memoir drives home how high and enmeshed the stakes can get. Why should a movie star who luxuriates in the spotlight professionally have to be subjected to the same spotlight in their private lives?

Why do we get so caught up in idolizing Hollywood movie stars? “I could say I never dreamed of it … but isn’t that what everyone dreams of?” confesses Lizzie. So, if you feel you’ve missed out on Hollywood fame, fortune, and lifestyle, thank your lucky stars Liftin shows us why we should think otherwise.

Lizzie Pepper wasn’t so lucky. She got all caught up in the lavish, romantic attention of Rob Mars, twenty years her senior. An “unbelievably distant star,” his name tells all: how Hollywood power brokers and his family revolved around him. Like living on “another planet.”

Lizzie ignored the early warnings. Since we’re given a heads-up in the book’s jacket and Introduction, we have the benefit of looking for clues she was too blindsided to see.

When things are too good to be true, well, they’re too good to be true. Often Lizzie concedes Rob’s “polish was so impenetrable,” but she kept falling into an emotional trap as he always pulled off the right words to make her feel understood. Red flags surfaced, though, like the time she stumbles on Rob’s secret office, which she dubs “Bluebeard’s Castle.” He won’t let her in, which nags at her. What is he hiding?

There’s plenty of other signs to warrant our suspicions: a mysteriously banished ex-wife; an elusive relationship with Rob’s sidekick, Geoff; and questions about the trustworthiness of those supposedly closest to Lizzie. Money and acute ambition can drive people to do terrible things.

Our greatest suspicions center on Rob’s fanatical attachment to One Cell Studio: an exclusive, tightly held, mind-body cult that preaches controlling emotions. Rumors abound. Lizzie’s no fool, but it does take her a long while to put the pieces together.

“I had the world at my fingertips. I had a beautiful family. I could buy a house and live anywhere on Earth. Dream come true? But it was all on the surface. I had no idea how to find or fix what lay beneath.”

Except what’s underneath is still that “girl-next-door.” Eventually, Lizzie follows her heart, not the rules she’s so dutifully played by her whole life.

The lines between fiction and reality can be fuzzy and risky. Lizzie’s fictional story has real-life consequences. While her life will never be the same, her voice echoes something else Denton wisely put: “People are happier when they live in truth.”


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The Mountain Story

Lost souls, lost on a mountaintop (fictional mountain wilderness setting inspired by Mount San Jacinto, overlooking Palm Springs in California’s desert Coachella Valley, present): The Mountain Story is an impressive mountain survival tale that stimulates our senses. The strength of the sensory prose is cumulative, visually making us aware of a place, its smells and sounds, its timelessness. By doing so, you’ll quickly step into the shoes of four lost souls lost on a mountaintop 8,000 feet up, without food, water, or basic orienteering tools. Their stories unravel in life-and-death moments and in the ebb of time stretched to its limits. Our heightened sensitivities stir us because we know, like the four, no one is searching for them. They didn’t leave much behind.

“What happened up there changed my life … Hearing the story is going to change yours,” you’re told at the outset. What you’re also told – inside the jacket and introductory three-page letter addressed to the son of the male narrator, Wolf, one of the imperiled four – is Wolf got lost on that mountaintop with three female strangers for five days; three survived and he was obviously one of them since he penned the letter years afterward. You’re also told Wolf came to that mountaintop to end his life. You might call these spoilers. But they don’t spoil a thing!

Be assured, then, this commentary will also not spoil the thrill of this tense ride. Which means here you will not find out why 18-year-old Wolf wanted to kill himself on his birthday, the same day as his best friend’s, Byrd. Nor will you learn how the three women are connected, or their reasons for coming to the mountaintop, since that’s not revealed until page 60+.

It’s the sensory prose I want to talk about. For it deepens the emotional impact of Canadian author Lori Lansens’ gripping fourth novel.

The mountain that inspired the story,
outside of Palm Springs
Photo by Conn, Kit [CC-BY-SA-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

First, the locale. The author has fictionalized the name of the mountain wilderness area and tweaked geological details. But the tram the four ride up in, which “takes you from the Desert Station – the climate of Mexico – to the Mountain Station – the climate of Northern Canada – in less than twenty minutes. Palms to pines” is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. According to the website, this tram is a 2 ½ mile feat of engineering genius, climbing to Mount San Jacinto. There’s only two others like it in the world: the tramcar’s floor rotates. This one is the world’s longest. You decide, then, if you’d experience this dangling, rotating transport marvel as “exciting” as Web commentators wrote, or react more like Lansens’ jittery women, who set a dicey tone for this nightmare in the wilds.

Enclosed in this high-wire, jolting tram, Wolf sizes up the women, before he even knows their names. He picks up on distinguishing features. So that’s how I’ll introduce them, noting names matter: Red Poncho, Green Flip-Flops (hmm, clearly not prepared; neither was Wolf, the most experienced mountaineer among them, for he came here for a different purpose), and Yellow Ponytail. When the tramcar lets them out at Mountain Station, there’s still a climb to the peak. “The climb speaks to our character, but the view, I think, to our souls,” says Wolf.

The real tram overlooks the wealthy resort city of Palm Springs. It contrasts sharply with the fictional town of Santa Sophia where the sad mobile home community Wolf’s been living at for the past five years, Tin Town, is located. The window we see bears the stereotype of white trash, marked by their lack of character and dignity rather than money. Wolf’s lot are a disgusting, out-of-control family: a repugnant, uncaring, loser of a father Frankie (“one of those guys people loved until they hated”); and a low-life aunt interestingly named Krikit, her coarse boyfriend, and crew of unkempt children fathered by many nameless. (Their dialogue can’t possibly be enchanted.) Something happened to Wolf’s mother, lovingly named Glory, which led Frankie to leave Michigan for the desert, accelerating his disgrace.

Already, a stunning contrast between Tin Town and the exalted mountains Wolf is addicted to “beyond love.”  Already, we understand the pull of this place for Wolf. Here is where he searches for the answer to: “Could a guy learn on his own what it means to be a man?”  Yes, he can, over five ill-fated days.

Mountain Time is perceived through five long chapters, each representing one intensely long day lost on the mountain. This is not the time zone but that floating perception of time when you lose yourself in Nature; or, in the most harrowing of imaginable and unimaginable wilderness crises, when time agonizingly stands still.

When faced with the impossible – rapid-fire crucial moments or five fighting days-worth – strangers fast become intimates. It’s partly why the novel is not fatalistic, but uplifting. Wolf bonds with the women, understandably a “comfort as I’d never known,” shining a bright light on the profoundness of human connections when tested in extreme situations.

Since names matter, let’s discuss Wolf’s. He has a “keen sense of smell.” Like wolves (and dogs), with something like 200 million olfactory cells versus our 5 to 6 million. There’s a name for Wolf’s acute sense of smell: hyperosmia. Wolf calls these smells “Endorphins. Inhale enough and you’re a mountain junkie.” When he smells butterscotch in the Jeffrey pines we almost taste sweetness. But it’s the camphor of wet sterasote bushes and the “quiet blue fragrance [that] meant rain” that counts when struggling to stay live. And these women are counting on Wolf. Feeling needed is intoxicating: Wolf has found the will to live and a heavy “sense of duty” to save them all.

When Wolf breathes in “ancient odors that spoke volumes of loss” he speaks for the Cahuilla Indians who once inhabited these mountains. He’s one-sixteenth Quebec Cree, so he’s been interested in Native Americans. Their healing arts, physical and spiritual, are woven into the dialogue and serve a crucial role.

There’s place names like Angel’s Peak, Devil’s Canyon, Secret Lake. Awe-inspiring and awe-frightening, like the “magnificent batholith” landscape that energizes versus the “horrible rock-ship” that torments. Again, the stark contrasts of Nature.

There’s rare mountain phlox around Secret Lake, a “magical oasis” intentionally not shown on maps, another challenge. Wolf identifies ironwood and lodgepole, with qualities that could aid. There’s also danger that a “large, loose boulder that could break off at any moment – or cling for another thousand years. That’s how it is with the rocks.”  Rocks as “big as cars.”  Rocks likened to “skyscrapers of gold-veined quartz.”

This wilderness is a meteorological roller-coaster. Wild and unpredictable. “The wind blew hard and mean, invading the spaces between the trees and rocks and us and courage.” The “fickle wind” plays disheartening tricks on the mind. “Mountain acoustics,” Wolf explains, means “you think you hear things – waterfalls, airplanes, voices.” Rescue that’s not there. Hope comes from someplace else, deep within us.

Wildlife is teeming. Again dramatic differences: lovely “singing finches” and majestic sightings of golden eagles, but lookout for coyotes and rattlesnakes that can sneak up on you.

Survival on that mountaintop brought “clarity, charity, perspective.”  It lay bare, then transformed four lost souls. They showed us the heroes among us.


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The Book of Speculation

A family cursed? – A fantastical modern tale tied to generations of a family’s circus history (set in a fictional town on the Long Island Sound; backstories traced to 19th–20th century traveling circuses): The current issue of Poets & Writers magazine cites an MFA course devoted entirely to crafting first paragraphs. Herein, I submit The Book of Speculation for a case study.

Chapter 1 opens on June 20th (the calendar matters). The voice, our narrator, is Simon Watson, a twenty-nine-year-old librarian archivist soon to be a victim of budget cuts:

Perched on the bluff’s edge, the house is in danger. Last night’s storm tore land and churned water, littering the beach with bottles, seaweed, and horseshoe crab carapaces. The place where I’ve spent my entire life is unlikely to survive the fall season. The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its greedy maw. It is a hunger.

Hungry for more? More keeps coming. This is not one of those novels with openers that hook us, then flattens. I loved the crisp prose – opening chapters, sentences, word-by-word. (Exception: Simon’s constantly swearing, tarot-card-addicted, rough sister. Named after the plane that dropped the atom bomb, Enola feels explosive.)

Three of Swords tarot card, Rider-Waite deck

I couldn’t put Erika Swyler’s debut novel down. A testament to how much I loved her taut, vivid prose because I shun away from mystical themes. Nor am I nostalgic for circuses or carnivals. Certainly not the freak shows. This is not your Greatest Show on Earth memories of slapstick clowns and fluffy cotton-candy, or Ferris wheels and skeeball carnival games. This is a darker underbelly of circus acts, where truth is an illusion. I’d never even heard of the term “cartomancy,” nor interested in tarot cards dating back centuries. The Waite deck, alluded to, might be the type passed down through the generations that keeps popping up, especially the ominous ones like the Three of Swords depicting a heart with three daggers piercing it. The symbolism of these cards plays out as the novel alternates between circuses past, Simon’s disquieting present and his near-future fears – which eventually converge.

The present revolves around the burden Simon has carried since eighteen. He’s been Enola’s surrogate father, after their mermaid circus performing mother, Paulina, a dark-haired beauty, drowned young, on July 24th. Their grief-stricken father essentially stopped living: stopped nurturing his children and completely ignored their circa 1700s historic house, so badly weathered by the waters today it’s literally falling apart. Then, he died of a heart attack. From heartache? Did he realize his wife’s family was troubled? Questions you’ll start wondering about as the novel unfolds.

It kicks off when Simon receives an antiquated book from a cheerful, elderly bookseller in Ohio with a circus-sounding name, Churchwarry. The rare book, adorned with eerie photographs illustrated by the author (an interesting addition) was part of a lot he speculated on at an auction. Simon’s grandmother’s name, Verona Bonn, was inscribed in the book, which is how it found its way to Simon.

There’s a hypnotic rhythm to the prose as the researcher obsessed Simon (who admits he’s better suited for reference work than people) obsessively researches the enigma of his grandmother’s attribution. He discovers she too was a circus mermaid who drowned young, on the same day his mother did.

Simon is like us: “I’m not a believer in curses. I like facts.” So he delves into circus history back to 1816 uncovering too many women in his family drowned young. All on the same fateful day. All circus mermaid acts. Seems his family has a superhuman ability to hold their breath underwater for incredibly long amounts of time. The skill (gift? curse?) lives on in Enola, and in Simon, the lone male. Paulina’s swimming-lesson voice haunts Simon. She schooled Simon and Enola to do the impossible.

As far-fetched as drowning mermaids over many generations in one family may sound, reference to the Flying Wallendas “dating back four hundred years, with a string of falls and accidents tragic enough to be called a curse” makes the family’s fate and Simon’s trepidation a similar fate will befall Enola seem plausible enough.

Enola, who Simon tells us is “not easy,” is easy to worry about. She’s chosen the same surreal circus path, but not as a mermaid. Prescient? She’s a tarot-card clairvoyant with a traveling carnival. Early on, she phones Simon, desperate sounding. She’s coming home for a long-overdue visit – abandonment a theme – accompanied by her tattooed boyfriend, Doyle. Another human freak act: Electricity Boy at the carnival. Doyle’s tenderness with Enola, and by extension, her brother, makes him likable actually.

Enola is aghast at the neglect of the house. Of course, Simon can’t afford the exorbitant costs to fix it, especially now that he’s jobless but he also can’t bear to let it go. He’s acknowledged he’s also “not easy,” but his emotional ties to his childhood home touch us. His neighbor, Frank McAvoy, father-like, can cover expenses. He’s fixated on this house, misses its occupants. His daughter, Alice, red-haired and freckled-faced, is a programmer at the same library as Simon. The two grew up together on this lovely and mysterious expanse on the Long Island Sound. Their friendship gets tangled up as Simon digs deeper into the precious book curiously in his possession.

“Portable Magic and Miracles” is a circus log meticulously maintained by a flamboyant, richly imaginative, profiteering circus-master with a flair for showmanship and a commanding voice. It details the comings and goings in northern and southern cities in America of his otherworldly circus menagerie.

The Fool tarot card,
Rider-Waite deck

“Never had there been such a man as Hermelius Peabody and he was fond of saying so,” boasts the journal’s keeper. Of all the weird acts he concocted, controlled, and chronicled most alive are the witchlike fortune-teller Madame Ryzhkova because her tarot cards offer a mute savage boy, Amos, a miraculous way to communicate. Peabody found him; turned him into the caged Wild Boy act. “We’ve all got to be somebody,” Peabody proclaims. He’s pecuniary but he has a heart, caring for Amos outside of the show like a son. Thankfully, the tarot-card diviner has a better idea. She mentors the mute boy as her trusted apprentice, teaching the double meaning of the cards (“Fool is fool because of blind happiness. He does not see misfortune.”) She cautions: “the seer is a blade. Too much softness dulls the mind. Silks and curtains are for guests.”

Was the fictional Peabody inspired by the real British circus manager Philip Astley? His name is casually dropped. There’s similarities: both had a large frame, booming voices, exceptional business acumen, and Astley was thought to be the originator of freaky acts. (Not all in Peabody’s circus is dark. There’s Benno, the strongman, “taught to watch for gentle souls”; and a miniature horse, Sugar Snip, who stands for kindness.)

Peabody’s writings drive home that no matter how weird or wacky or folkloric, circus performers have feelings too. The mute boy longs for a mermaid named Evangeline who taught him that “a smile did not always mean happiness, crying might mean sadness or joy, and that women could be much comforted by an embrace.” Amos also cares for the Russian psychic who also taught him how to live. The two women don’t mix well. “All folktales have a price.”

Simon figures out there’s a price to his fact-finding too. As the clock ticks, there’s revelations and a tense ending. Much to ponder but one thing you won’t need to speculate on: “Books have a way of causing ripples.”


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