Having chosen this book based firstly on its book design, and then by its blurb, I really wanted it to be magical … and it is.
The blurb from Goodreads:
On the eve of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt – ventriloquist by trade, conman by birth – isn’t quite sure how it will change him or his city. Omaha still has the marks of a filthy Wild West town, even as it attempts to achieve the grandeur and respectability of nearby Chicago. But when he crosses paths with the beautiful and enigmatic Cecily, his whole purpos On the eve of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt – ventriloquist by trade, conman by birth – isn’t quite sure how it will change him or his city. Omaha still has the marks of a filthy Wild West town, even as it attempts to achieve the grandeur and respectability of nearby Chicago. But when he crosses paths with the beautiful and enigmatic Cecily, his whole purpose shifts and the fair becomes the backdrop to their love affair.
One of a travelling troupe of actors that has descended on the city, Cecily works in the Midway’s Chamber of Horrors, where she loses her head hourly on a guillotine playing Marie Antoinette. And after closing, she rushes off, clinging protectively to a mysterious carpet bag, never giving Ferret a second glance. But a moonlit ride on the swan gondola, a boat on the lagoon of the New White City, changes everything, and the fair’s magic begins to take its effect.
This is a love story. It is the love story of Ferret and Oscar, Ferret and August, Ferret and Cecily, Ferret and the Old Sisters Egan. Life is kind of like that. What is lived in a mere couple of years could fill a lifetime.
Timothy Schaffert has created a steampunk, Romantic, carnivalesque, grotesque, magical, whimsical story, imbued with the values and beliefs of the era; a sense of the fragility and transience of time, an age of invention and curiosity, and a sense of self. He manages to illuminate the rich/poor divide with Opium eaters, fantasy and transgenderism, and ‘Oscar Wilde types’. The Swan Gondola has theatre, circus, freaks and side shows and spiritualism. It illuminates the era of medical development (or not) with potions, lotions and elixirs, spa waters and other experimental dubious treatments. If that hasn’t caught your imagination, I’m afraid you must be daytime TV dead.
It has an orderly story. The use of typographical tools to show the difference between narrative and letters is directional. It has suspense. It has action. It has intrigue. It has the sense of a masquerade ball. It has back stories, but just the right amount so as not to detract from the main story. It has characters you can identify with or feel connected to, and some of these people you will like but maybe just not all of the time.
There are several libraries in the story. You had me at hello. “And I admired the clutter of his crooked library – though the walls were curved like all the other walls of the strange house, the bookcases weren’t … And I could tell the books were read, not just collected, by the way they were shoved onto the shelves when not another book could possibly fit. Bookmarks and strings poked out the tops of them … And the room had that rich, dusty, sweet smell of old pages constantly fluttered open, that could of vanilla and tobacco that watered your eyes”.
There are several ‘tea parties’ – well Schaffert hit me in the heart right there. “Too hot for tea,” I said. “But that’s why we drink it, isn’t it?” he said. “And why we drink whiskey? And why we smoke like fields? To work up a sweat to cool us off?”.
Schaffert has brought to life a fiction of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898, with more than an allusion or two to L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900) For this fantasy and fairy-tale, I believe Schaffert has composed a jewel (green of course) in the world of literature, and I highly recommend you sit down with a pot of tea and some macaroons to enjoy this one wholeheartedly, as I did and will again.
This edition was published in 2014 by Puffin Books (Puffin Chalks)
This book is for lovers of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry and The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman.
Just an extra note on #bookmusic. I read this book mostly listening to the music score of Water for Elephants composed by James Newton Howard. Give it a go …