Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Coney Island, 1911: Coralie Sardie is the daughter of a self-proclaimed scientist and professor who acts as the impresario of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a boardwalk freak show offering amazement and entertainment to the masses. An extraordinary swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl,and a 100 year old turtle, in her father's ""museum"". She swims regularly in New York's Hudson River, and one night stumbles upon a striking young man alone in the woods photographing moon-lit trees. From that moment, Coralie knows her life will never be the same.

The dashing photographer Coralie spies is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father's Lower East Side Orthodox community. As Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and the dispute between factory owners and labourers. In the tumultuous times that characterized life in New York between the world wars, Coralie and Eddie's lives come crashing together in Alice Hoffman's mesmerizing, imaginative, and romantic new novel.
Publisher's Description 

This book is many things: a love story, a historical novel, and a mystery. It has much that I love in fiction and in magic realism. It is magical and at the same time dark, unafraid to tackle hard subjects: the abuse by unscrupulous employers of immigrant workers, the abuse of women in a patriarchal society, and the commercial exploitation of the "freaks" in the Professor's museum. In some hands these subjects could be too heavy, but Hoffman's magical and lyrical storytelling allows the reader to engage with the story. Nevertheless, unlike some of Hoffman's other work, this book is very much for adults. 

The writing structure is an interesting one - with the two first-person narratives (Eddie and Coralie)  being interspersed by that of  an anonymous third-person storyteller. At first this structure took a bit of getting used to, but I soon found that I liked the way the third-person narrator was used to bring an extra dimension to the story. The accounts of the historically true incidents which frame the story - the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Dreamland Fire - are told in the third-person and are no less powerful for that. The image of the trapped factory workers jumping to their deaths will stay with you: At first, the falling girls had seemed like birds. Bright cardinals, bone-white doves, swooping blackbirds in velvet-collared coats. But when they hit the cement, the terrible truth of the matter was revealed.

Hoffman's use of themed imagery is on display here. The most obvious themes are fire and water, but there are others such as that of birds: a livery man with a dark past is shown to have changed through his love of birds; the hummingbirds in the Museum are tied to the cages on leashes of string; the imported starlings at first are seen as exotic and then despised by the people of New York. Some people might find such repeated imagery to be over-heavy, but I liked it.  

Hoffman is known for her use of magic realism. In this book there is usually an explanation for any perceived magic, indeed it is often shown as illusion, most obviously in the Professor's Museum. The Professor is a fraud, presenting as magically real that which is constructed in his cellar of horror. At the same time the freak-show performers are portrayed as very human and humane. We see them through Coralie's eyes.  The real monsters are the Professor and the people who come to gawp and abuse. And the true magic is that of human love.

I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.


Unknown said...

This looks really good. I must put it on my TBR list - which is waaaay to long.

Marsha A. Moore said...

Thank you for this review. I have the book on my ereader, next in line. I'm looking forward to it even more now.