If you fancy a good old-fashioned piece of storytelling with beauty, the beast, freaks of nature, love stories, redemption and a faithful, loving pit bull who doesn’t know how to fight I have just the book for you. Alice Hoffman’s new novel has all this plus a hefty helping of suspense. What’s not to like? I have to admit that I’d stopped reading Hoffman’s novels some time ago. I’d read and enjoyed Turtle Moon, sliding her into that smalltown American novel pigeonhole alongside Anne Tyler, but there was a strand of the fantastical in her later books that was a shade too whimsical for me. Very little of that in The Museum of Extraordinary Things set in 1911 against the backdrop of Coney Island, its amusement parks and sideshows.
Coralie is the daughter of Professor Sardie, the proprietor of the eponymous museum always on the lookout for new attractions and not above visiting the morgue, eyeing up deformed children and displaying his own daughter tricked out as a mermaid. Times are hard: Dreamland, his hated rival, is expanding and Sardie is busy cooking up ideas to lure the punters in, most of them unsavoury. One such scheme involves Coralie swimming far out into the Hudson at night, painted to resemble a monster in the hope of spreading rumours which Sardie can capitalise on as he frantically searches for an exhibit he can bill as the Hudson Mystery. On one of these nocturnal swims, Coralie sees a young man – a photographer setting up his equipment on the beach. This is Eddie, née Ezekiel, who has turned his back on his Jewish Orthodox upbringing and his grieving father whose apparent suicide attempt disgusts him. The narratives of these two crisscross in a string of coincidences as they each tell their stories eventually coming together in an edge-of-your-seat storyline which takes in political corruption, unions and the tragic inferno of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory which consumed many lives thanks to its locked doors.
It’s a masterclass in storytelling: a love story peopled with colourful characters vividly drawn, replete with period detail and with a breathlessly suspenseful ending. Hoffman’s descriptions are vibrant. She deftly summons up both the grinding poverty of early twentieth-century Brooklyn and the tawdry sordidness of Sardie’s schemes. At times it feels almost Dickensian but there are elements of the fairy tale, too, although whimsy is avoided, thankfully. As, Hoffman points out in her acknowledgements, there’s a strong historical basis to her book: both Dreamland and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burnt down in 1911 with a terrible loss of life. It would make a wonderful film, or perhaps a TV series – a neat combination of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Carnvàle without the wackier bits. Hugely enjoyable and thoroughly recommended.
It was my weakness for the sideshow/circus backdrop in fiction and film that got me reading Alice Hoffman again: Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, Robert Hough’s The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and, of course, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus have all hit the spot for me. I already have a copy of Will Davis’s The Trapeze Artist waiting to be read but if you have any recommendations for novels I may have missed I’d be more than happy to hear them.
The lovely people over at Shiny New Books have added a short interview with Alice Hoffman to their website in which she not only talks about The Museum of Extraordinary Things but spills the beans on what she’s working on now. Well worth a look.