Simon Watson receives an odd gift from a stranger in the mail one day–an old book that records the travels and business of an 18th century circus. The accompanying note suggests that he might like it because it has a distant family connection. Beyond that, Simon is a man who likes old books–he is a reference librarian in his hometown on Long Island. However, rather than the book merely being a piece of the past, Simon finds some troubling revelations about his family as he researches the topic further.
Namely, he learns that the strange suicide of his mother, a former circus “mermaid” performer who drowned herself when he was a child, is not an isolated event and that generations of women before her in the family have also been mermaids in circuses who drowned themselves on the same day of the year. Even more disturbing from his perspective, that day is rapidly approaching, and his troubled sister, a fortuneteller for a circus, is in town and acting strangely. Is history repeating itself? Is he delusional? Can he save his sister–and himself–from whatever dark shadow lurks over their family?
My coworker Mary-Esther recently recommended this book because she had started reading it and liked it. I’m glad she did because I really enjoyed it! (Thanks again, Mary-Esther!)
One thing I especially enjoyed is how well author Erica Swyler, in her debut novel, no less, combined multiple genres effectively. The book works well as a contemporary tale of family drama, as a mystery, as a fantasy, and as a historical fiction about 18th-century circus life. A major reason for this was Swyler did a great job of bringing her various settings to life, whether it was modern-day Long Island, Simon’s library workplace, or a historical circus.
The story rotates between two storylines–Simon’s modern-day quest to learn more about his family and the origin tale that starts with a mute boy who joins a traveling circus in the late 1700s. Though I enjoy these types of stories, I’ve sometimes had trouble with other books that had similar structures simply because I will find one of the storylines more compelling than the other. But that wasn’t the case with this book–I liked both sections and had a hard time putting the book down because I got really invested in figuring out the secrets that lurked in Simon’s family’s past and what effect they would have on the two surviving members.
Another plus is, though the book is certainly eerie and haunting, it isn’t scary. If you want something atmospheric to read but don’t like horror, this would be a good one to try. If you want more information on the book or would like to hold a copy for yourself, please visit our online library catalog.
Recommended for those who enjoyed Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, and Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.
Have you read this book? What’s your favorite book about family secrets? What have you been reading lately? Tell us in the comments!