The truth frightens people because it isn’t stable. It shifts everyday.
Professor Sardie runs The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a ‘freakshow’ based in Coney Island, opposite the Dreamland theme park. On her tenth birthday, his daughter Coralie becomes ‘The Human Mermaid’. He has been training her for this for some time:
I ate a meal of fish every day so my constitution might echo the abilities of these creatures. We bathed in ice water, good for the skin and inner organs. My father had a breathing tube constructed so that I could remain soaking underwater in the claw-foot tub, and soon my baths lasted an hour or more. I had only to take a puff of air to remain beneath the surface.
Coralie plays the human mermaid for eight years. She has a birth deformity on her hands – webbing between the fingers, which is dyed indigo every morning – and long black hair which, along with a specially constructed tail, aid her act.
However, aged 18, Coralie’s popularity is beginning to wain and her father starts to search for something new, something more dramatic to bring the crowds to the museum. In 1911 then, when the novel is set, we are to find Coralie swimming the Hudson River at night while her father spreads rumours of a monster.
It is as she emerges from one of these night swims that Coralie sees Eddie Cohen and his dog Mitts.
Eddie was born to Orthodox Jews in the Ukraine and named Ezekiel. After his village was burnt down, his mother inside their house, his father took them to New York City where he became a tailor until the factory owners brought in cheaper labour prepared to work longer shifts. On the day Ezekial sees his father try to commit suicide, he abandons both his faith and his father and goes to work for ‘The Wizard’, Abraham Hochman, searching for missing people.
By the time Coralie sees him though, Eddie is a photographer; his photographs of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, his talent for finding people and her discovery of a body in the Hudson during one of her swims will bring them together.
However, The Museum of Extraordinary Things does not only tell the stories of Coralie and Eddie, it also tells the tale of a city in transition; a city whose population is growing; a city whose rural areas are being eaten up by concrete; a city whose worker population is mobilising itself and creating unions to fight for its rights. It’s a book filled with movement and change.
The narrative voice of the novel also moves; it shifts between Coralie and Eddie in first person, as well as a third person subjective narrator that closely shadows both of them. This allows Hoffman to give us an insight into their thoughts and back stories while giving us sight of their actions from a perspective which allows us to watch and question more easily.
I should point out here that my two favourite ingredients for a novel are freakshow characters and a setting of New York which means that the chances that I would enjoy The Museum of Extraordinary Things was high. However, Hoffman is a well-established writer more than capable of telling a bloody good story and that’s exactly what this novel is: it’s a detective story and a love story. It’s about class and religion and rights – workers’ and womens’ – and the bond between parent and child. It’s an absorbing read that unravels its core slowly and satisfyingly. Highly recommended.
Thanks to Simon and Schuster for the review copy.