Alice Hoffman is a prolific and engaging storyteller known for the occasional touch of magical realism and an ability to transport her reader into the worlds she creates.
She wrote one of my favourite books Blackbird House, referred to by some as a collection of short stories, the connecting thread running through each story being an old Massachusetts house, the narrative tracing the lives of its various occupants over a span of 200 years. The house bears witness to change through each family’s loved ones and the lives they live inside Blackbird House.
Since that haunting book I have kept an eye out for her work and when I read the premise of this new novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I was more than intrigued. It is set in 1917 New York, when things of a freakish nature fascinated and amusement parks were becoming bigger and bolder in their scope, trying to outdo each other with what they offered the public.
Professor Sardie is an eccentric French scientist and magician, who came to America seeking his fortune and when we meet him, he has opened a museum of extraordinary living oddities in a room connected to his home on Coney Island, New York. He lives there with his daughter Coralie and Maureen, the woman he has hired to take care of his daughter, herself an extraordinary being, a loving and devoted carer and the victim of disfiguring burns over her face and body.
In addition to the museum, he is constantly thinking up new exhibits and working on bizarre projects in the basement cellar, a den that no one but he has access to.
The story has a dual narrative, firstly from the point of view of his daughter Coralie who becomes part of her father’s exhibit alongside performers including the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. She has been trained since a small girl to withstand extreme cold and secretly swims along the Hudson River to build up her strength.
The second narrative is from the perspective of a young Russian-Ukrainian immigrant, Eddie Cohen, who has drifted away from his father and the Lower East Side Orthodox community where they lived, having fled persecution in their homeland. Leaving his job as a tailor’s apprentice, he first works for a psychic investigator finding missing people and then attaches himself to a photographer leading eventually to work for a newspaper. He too has a fascination with the Hudson River and it is here that Coralie will catch her first glimpse of the young man, she will become fascinated by.
“A motherless boy is hardened in many ways yet will often search for a place to deposit his loyalty and devotion. Eddie had found this in the city he saw as one great and tormented beauty, one ready to embrace him when all others turned away.”
Hoffman writes the story of the lives of these two characters and others, eventually bringing them together, while sharing two significant tragic events in New York’s history in 1911. During one of these events a young woman goes missing and it is this mystery that will ultimately bring the young couple together.
The city and the river are themselves like characters, struggling to live in harmony, with the knowledge that one will eventually encroach on the other and destroy its peaceful surrounding. For now the river is like a refuge and the city a menace that threatens to overthrow its flanks, bringing dark elements to its shores.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things brings New York City and the conditions of 1911 alive. The river, the streets and the changing landscape between them are sketched using all the senses as we step into the lives of characters living on the edge of society trying to survive. We observe those for whom it comes naturally to exploit the weak while witnessing the compassionate few who will risk everything including life itself to do the opposite.
It is a riveting read, transporting us to an era when fantasy and the imagination were sought as a literal means of escape and we look behind the scenes of an extraordinary, freakish world. Spellbinding!
Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.