Every once in awhile a book comes along that sucks you in and swallows you so completely that, when it’s over, you feel bereft. The Book of Speculation is one of those books. Simon receives a book, a very old handwritten book with drawings, from an old bookseller that he does not know. He lives on the coast on the Long Island Sound in the house left to him by his parents, which is crumbling into the ocean. When he is not fighting rising water levels and erosion and the entropy of all houses, he is a reference librarian in his small town and oversees the small whaling archive. Until he is downsized due to budget cuts. This downsizing coincides with his receiving the strange book from the strange bookseller and the return of his sister, Enola, who has been off reading Tarot cards with the circus. That is not as weird as it sounds because their mother was a mermaid with a circus and she handed down a set of tarot cards to Enola that had been owned by her mother and her mother’s mother. Simon and Enola are orphans because, although their mother was a mermaid and could hold her breath for ten minutes, she drowned herself on July 24 when Enola was small and Simon was seven. Their father died of a stroke some years after and Simon was left to raise his sister, who rebelled and left as soon as she was able.
Enola is in trouble and Simon begins to think her trouble is explained by the book, which recounts the story of an 18th-century carnival and contains the names of his grandmother and great-grandmother, both of whom drowned themselves on July 24. Simon uses his librarian resources to research the names and events in the book and explores curses and how to break them.
Swyler tells the story alternating between the present and the 18th-century carnival and all of her characters are fascinating. Simon cannot leave his parent’s crumbling home despite the fact that it is overwhelming him. Enola brings home a boyfriend, Doyle, who conducts electric current and has a popular act in the circus. Simon’s neighbor, Frank, is a carpenter who wants to help Simon with the house and whose daughter, Alice, has been the silent love of Simon’s life and his co-worker at the library–only recently she has become his actualized love. The carnival owner, Peabody, takes in a mute boy who is named Amos by the fortune teller Madame Ritzkova. He finds a beautiful young woman who runs out of the woods, Evangeline, and becomes the show’s mermaid and Simon’s ancestor.
As Simon fights to solve the puzzle of the drowned women of his family before July 24 to save his sister, Swyler lets us wonder if instead he needs to save himself, obsessed, unemployed, and likely seriously depressed. Swyler’s debut is a book-loving historian mystery-lover’s dream.