Book of Speculation (Swyler)

The Book of Speculation 
Erika Swyler, 2015
St. Martin's Press
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781250054807

Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound.

His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival.

One June day, an old book arrives on Simon's doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation.

Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of "mermaids" in Simon's family have drowned--always on July 24, which is only weeks away.

As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon's family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?

In the tradition of Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation—with two-color illustrations by the author—is a moving debut novel about the power of books, family, and magic. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—on Long Island, New York, USA
Education—B.A., New York University
Currently—lives on Long Island, New York

Erika Swyler is a graduate of New York University. Her short fiction has appeared in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Litro,, and elsewhere. Her writing is featured in the anthology Colonial Comics, and her work as a playwright has received note from the Jane Chambers Award.

Born and raised on Long Island's North Shore, Erika learned to swim before she could walk, and happily spent all her money at traveling carnivals. She blogs and has a baking Tumblr with a following of 60,000. Erika recently moved from Brooklyn back to her hometown, which inspired the setting of the book. The Book of Speculation is her 2015 debut novel. Her second, Light from Other Stars, was published in 2019.  (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
In Swyler’s whimsically dark debut, a damaged journal… finds its way to Simon Watson, a Long Island librarian in the present with a family history that seems to be tied up in the mysterious tome.… [A] fully formed mythos chock full of curses, omens, and coincidences, all of which help make up for the story’s weak points.
Publishers Weekly

[A] melancholy world with hints of magic at the edges. When the narrative shifts from the emotionally myopic Simon to the circus, the story really starts to gleam. Each member of the troupe shimmers with mystery.… Fans of… novels] with a hint of the supernatural...won't want to leave this festival. —Liza Oldham, Beverly, MA
Library Journal

When a young librarian comes into possession of the diary of a traveling circus from more than 200 years ago, he decides the book may hold clues to a family mystery he needs to solve to save his sister's life..... A bit fey, even as romantic whimsy. For die-hard mermaid-fiction lovers only.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. How are the dual narratives—the present-day story and the one from the 1790s—set apart? In what ways are they connected? How do the characters and events in one narrative play off of those in the other?

2. What part do various languages play in both narratives? Why do you think the author chose to make Amos mute?

3. Simon has vivid memories of his childhood, whereas Amos has little recollection of his. What part does the fragile nature of memory play in each of their lives?

4. Enola and Simon have dramatically different reactions to their shared childhood. Why do you think Enola flees and Simon stays? How does their relationship influence their choices in both the past and in the present?

5. Different types of magic are woven throughout the story and individual characters are drawn to specific kinds—water magic, tarot cards, book magic, etc. Which characters resonate with which kinds of magic? Are you drawn to a particular type of magic? Do you have to believe in magic to appreciate this novel?

6. How does Simon’s concept of home change over the course of the story? How does it compare with other characters’ ideas about home? What does home mean to you?

7. “Haven’t you ever felt connected to a book?” Churchwarry asks Simon. What do books mean to him and to Simon? Do you have a book that you feel is uniquely yours?

8. “You can’t find family in a book,” Alice warns Simon early on. What does he find in the book that Churchwarry sends him, and what does he learn in other ways?

9. What is the significance of various forms of water (including the ocean, flooding, etc.) throughout the story? What is the role of the horseshoe crabs?

10. What do you think about illustrated novels in general or this one in particular? How did the author’s drawings influence your view of the characters and events?

11. How much do you know about curses, and do you believe in them? At the end, do you think the curse is broken or does the reappearance of the cards mean that it still lives on?

12. Near the end of the book, Simon observes, “We carry our families like anchors, rooting us in storms, making sure we never drift from where and who we are. We carry our families within us the way we carry our breath underwater, keeping us afloat, keeping us alive. I’ve been lifting anchors since I was eighteen. I’ve been holding my breath since before I was born.” What meaning does this passage have for you?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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