The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Roll up! Roll up!

😀 😀 😀 😀

One day, just as the Omaha World Fair of 1898 draws to a close, two elderly sisters are sitting quietly in their Nebraska farmhouse when an extraordinary event occurs – a hot-air balloon crashes onto their roof. In it is Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist and magician. He has survived but with a badly broken leg which means that he has to stay in the farmhouse while he recovers – an intrusion the old ladies find a welcome break from their dull routine. They ask him for his story and he is at first reluctant to tell them, instead telling us, the readers. We hear about his early life as an orphan, why he became a ventriloquist, his fascination with the World Fair, his puppet Oscar. And most of all, we learn about his great love for Cecily, an actress also working in the Fair. Finally, we will learn why he was in the hot-air balloon on the day of the crash…

By all rights I should have hated this one. Mostly it’s a romance, with much sighing over Cecily’s many perfections, and it has generous hints of the kind of trendy liberal “woke”-ness that normally makes me run a mile. But the writing is gorgeous and all the stuff about the World Fair is wonderful. I kept expecting to reach a point where the love aspect got too much for me, especially when in the later stages it takes on a kind of ghostly, mystical element, but it kept my attention to the end, and I was well content to gloss over the relative weakness of the plot and its too tidy resolution.

(This is why I love doing challenges. I only read this because of the Omaha setting which is a compulsory stop on my Around the World Challenge. I would never have chosen it based on the blurb or even the mixed reviews.)

I didn’t yet know that this was the actress not listed in the program, that this was that Sessaly, the “violet-eyed trollop” of Opium and Vanities. Her eyes were not violet, after all – they were amber. They were the color of candied ginger or a slice of cinnamon cake. Faded paper, polished leather, a brandied apricot. Orange-peel tea. I considered them, imagining the letters I would write to her. Pipe tobacco, perhaps. A honey lozenge, an autumn leaf. I would look through books of poetry, not to thieve but to avoid. Dear Sessaly, I thought later that night, not actually with pen to paper but lying on my back, writing the words in the air with my finger, let me say nothing to you that’s already been said.

(This is the real event that Schaffert has used as his “World Fair”.)

As well as Cecily and Ferret, there’s a cast of characters who would be eccentric in most lifestyles but who are well and believably drawn as the street entertainers, small-time actors and grifters who haunt the periphery of the Fair. August is Ferret’s best friend – a gay half-caste Indian (using the terminology of the time) who is madly in love with Ferret but knows his love will never be returned. (Yeah. But oddly it works, more or less.) Billy Wakefield is a rich man with a tragic past which somehow fails to make him sympathetic – he’s by no means a stock baddie, but he’s a man who is used to getting his own way regardless of who may get hurt in the process. Cecily works in a company of actors who are performing in the House of Horrors – Cecily herself playing Marie Antoinette being beheaded many times a day for the gruesome delight of the paying customers. And the Nebraskan sisters have their own peculiarities, such as their intention to build a kind of temple on their ground with Ferret as an unlikely prophet.

The characterisation is more whimsical than profound, and Cecily herself is an enigma, to me at least. I found her irritating and not a particularly loveable person, but everyone seems to love her anyway. The story, which looks as if it’s going to be a straightforward romance at first, takes off in an unexpected direction halfway through. I don’t want to include spoilers so I won’t say more on that, except that every time I thought I’d got a handle on where the story was going Schaffert would surprise me – not with shocks and twists, but with an almost fairy-tale like quality of unreality, or illusion.

I can see your absence everywhere, in everything. I could look at a rose, but instead of seeing the rose, I would see you not holding it. I look at the moonlight, and there you are, not in it.

Timothy Schaffert

For me, the Fair itself was the star of the show. Schaffert shows all the surface glamour, and all the hidden tawdriness beneath: the Grand Court where the rich play, the midway for the common herd. He shows the unofficial street entertainers, the whores, the drunks, the sellers of obscene photographs, the many ways to fleece the gullible. But there’s a feeling that the open grifting and true friendships on midway are somehow more honest than the insincerity among the respectable rich, where friendships are superficial and people live for scandal and gossip. Schaffert’s plot runs the full length of the Fair, so that we see it from its dazzling opening with all the buildings white and shining in the sun, to its close, when the veneer is already peeling off, glamour gone, showing the cheap shabbiness beneath and the last fair people left stealing anything they can before they leave.

I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to read this – an odd one, but a surprise winner.

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