Like Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, Alice Hoffman’s novel begins from a place of belonging.
Coralie is a professional mermaid in early twentieth-century Coney Island, who grows up with the Wolfman and various other characters who seem to step from the pages of fairy tales.
Her father is the founder of the museum, the curator, the Professor, and holder of many other titles which will not be revealed here.
But this is the world which Coralie knows, as she learns to hold her breath for longer periods and becomes adept at fulfilling onlookers’ expectations of mermaids.
It is a world which, in 1911, is coping with great change, but where better to seek the means of transformation than here.
“The Museum of Extraordinary Things was a true museum, a place of edification, wherein natural curiosities were displayed along with human marvels. Now, however, they needed more, and, when more could not be found, it must be invented. If there was anyone who might be able to succeed in such an act of trickery, it was the Professor, who had been a magician in France, quite famous in his time, known for acts of wonder so astounding they had made people doubt their own eyes. He understood that not only could a man’s eyes mislead him but his mind could deceive him as well.”
As Coralie grows, however, she reaches beyond the tank. Her father has the idea that she could be the stuff of legend, be the strange and wondrous creature that has been spotted by New York City residents swimming in the Hudson River.
And, in time, that transformation is complete, if only in Coralie’s mind, which is where deceptions live.
“She was exactly what she had pretended to be on those nights when she waded into the Hudson, a monster and a monster’s daughter.”
The narrative is splintered into four layers, the inner voices of Coralie and Eddie (in italics), and matching broader narrative perspectives for each of these character’s experiences alongside (so that readers never forget that tales are being spun).
Eddie Cohen survived the pogroms as a boy with his father in the Ukraine; they needed to be magicians of a sort too. (In the following passage, he describes the experience directly.)
“On the night our village burned, when my father and I lay together in the grass, with owls swooping above us, our stomachs rumbling with hunger, I was not more than five or six. And yet this was when I began to view him as a coward. Side by side we were, a coward and a coward’s son.”
And he, like Coralie, inhabits the margins of society, as a newcomer to New York City, who must find work as a boy, alongside his father, who is a tailor working in the garment industry.
In time, however, Eddie leaves work in the factory behind and begins working the streets, developing a reputation for finding those who have been lost, working for another kind of Professor. (In this passage, the storyteller presents Eddie’s thoughts.)
“He wondered if every criminal saw himself as the hero of his own story, and if every thankless son was convinced he’d been mistreated by his father. Nothing was constant, he understood that now.”
What is real? What is constant? What can be trusted? The reader can participate in the question-and-answer of these calls in a unique way, both inhabiting and observing the characters’ experiences.
“Whatever was witnessed in the real world was unknowable in real time. It was the eye of the camera that captured the world as it truly was. For this reason photography was not only Eddie’s profession, it was his calling.”
Both Eddie and Coralie, too, reach for ways of knowing. They question what they once believed to have been true. They find new ways to inhabit the fringes, the spaces they have held dear. “Every miracle would be called into question.” They wonder at – and doubt – the stuff of miracles.
The novel transports readers to both the wild spaces of New York City and the city streets; there is a recommended reading section at the back which suggests that a great deal of research went into the Coney Island scenes, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the photographer’s and swimmer’s experiences of this world.
Alice Hoffman is not so much a stylist as a storyteller in this volume. There are some beautiful bits of prose. (“My curiosity became a stone in my shoe.“) But just as with her last novel, The Dovekeepers, the story is of primary importance.
“He should have gone back to Brooklyn, to address the matters of his own life and interests, returning for Coralie. Instead he took up his old post on the corner of Sixty-second Street. Something had taken hold of him, the urge to make things right.”
The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a fairy tale, with justice restored and a something-like-happy ending.