I really wanted this to be a five-star story, as the premise, touted as “a tale of star-crossed lovers, freak shows, murder and mystery”, sounds like something I’d love. Unfortunately, it just missed the mark for me although I can’t quite put my finger on why, as it is a beautiful book.
The titular Museum Of Extraordinary Things is a Coney Island attraction which showcases an array of natural wonders, presided over by scientist and magician Professor Sardie. The Professor’s daughter, Coralie, lives an isolated life with him at the museum, and when she turns of age she herself is encouraged to become part of the show, performing as a human mermaid due to her webbed hands and impressive breathing abilities.
The book’s narration is split between Coralie and Eddie, a photographer who has abandoned his family and his religion to spend his time documenting New York life with his camera and fishing in the Hudson river. Both lead very solitary existences, until a chance meeting one night by the river.
Between the two narratives, Hoffman explores the two unlikely mates’ past, present and future, all bookended by dramatic, real-life events which took place in New York in 1911. Coralie is confined to her father’s run-down, seedy museum, but at night she sneaks out to the great Dreamland, a ambitious theme park which towers over their own inferior attraction. She loves to visit, not to go on the rides but to be amongst the people, soaking up the merry atmosphere which is juxtaposed against her own lonely lifestyle.
On mainland New York, Eddie is witness to the Triangle fire at a local factory, deemed one of the most deadly industrial disasters in history. After Eddie experiences the horror of the event first-hand as he photographs it, he is then tasked with finding a missing factory worker. His investigation leads him back to the Hudson river and to Coralie, and so the two become enmeshed in a mission for answers and justice, and entwined with each other.
There’s lots of things to love about this book. One aspect which impressed me was the integration of real life events – two very severe fires bookend the novel – of which I had very little knowledge of previously, and they are used not just as background fodder but as crucial turning-points in the story. Another this is the writing; it’s beautiful – Hoffman knows how to write words that send a shiver down your spine, how to capture a period and the atmosphere of magic and wonder of Coney Island. I loved the depiction of Professor Sardie as the villain of the piece too – he treats his daughter and workers terribly, but as a reader his dark, obsessive ideas were fascinating.
Within Coralie’s story – and that of some of the other museum’s wonders too – Hoffman explores the struggle to be oneself and be free; many characters begin as victims of their circumstances, held back by their oddities, but the story explores how everyone can make their own fate; “The past was what we carried with us, threaded to the future, and we decided whether to keep it close or let it go. Fate was both what we were given and what we made for ourselves.”
A key theme running through the novel is that of magic – or rather, illusion. I think it’s probably what attracted me to the story in the first place, and ultimately perhaps its downfall with me on a personal level. I was expecting a The Night Circus, complete with real, whimsical magic. This book is all about illusion; the magic and fantasy is proved to be false and it’s much more grounded in realism.
“Eddie had come to understand that what a man saw and what actually existed in the natural world often were contradictory. The human eye was not capable of true sight, for it was constrained by its own humanness, clouded by regret, and opinion, and faith.”
All in all, this was a gorgeous little book – it just wasn’t quite as good as I was hoping it could be.