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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 212…

Episode 212

Phew! Last week the TBR had fallen dangerously low and I know a lot of you have had sleepless nights worrying on my behalf. Well, sleep sound tonight! Thanks to the unanticipated arrival of a box of books, the bookocalypse has been delayed – up 1 to 223…

Here are a few I plan to read before the end comes…

Historical Fiction

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

OK, this doesn’t sound my kind of thing at all, especially since lots of Goodreads readers have tagged it as romance, fantasy and magical realism – ugh, ugh, and oxymoronic! But Omaha is a compulsory spot on my Around the World challenge and you have no idea how hard it’s been to find a book set there! So buckle up – it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

The Blurb says: 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.

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Biography

Enoch Powell by Paul Corthorn

Courtesy of Oxford University Press. Enoch Powell was the bogeyman for the left back in the ’70s when I became politically aware, hated and reviled as the arch-racist over his infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, when he warned Britain of the dangers of uncontrolled immigration in extraordinarily incendiary terms. But he had had a long and important career before that, almost completely forgotten now because of that moment. I’ve often wondered whether he was really as vilely racist as that speech made him appear and have wanted to know more about what brought him to self-destruct in such a spectacular fashion. Hopefully this book might answer some of my questions…

The Blurb says: Best known for his notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 and his outspoken opposition to immigration, Enoch Powell was one of the most controversial figures in British political life in the second half of the twentieth century and a formative influence on what came to be known as Thatcherism.

Telling the story of Powell’s political life from the 1950s onwards, Paul Corthorn’s intellectual biography goes beyond a fixation on the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech to bring us a man who thought deeply about – and often took highly unusual (and sometimes apparently contradictory) positions on – the central political debates of the post-1945 era: denying the existence of the Cold War (at one stage going so far as to advocate the idea of an alliance with the Soviet Union); advocating free-market economics long before it was fashionable, while remaining a staunch defender of the idea of a National Health Service; vehemently opposing British membership of the European Economic Community; arguing for the closer integration of Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK; and in the 1980s supporting the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

In the process, Powell emerges as more than just a deeply divisive figure but as a seminal political intellectual of his time. Paying particular attention to the revealing inconsistencies in Powell’s thought and the significant ways in which his thinking changed over time, Corthorn argues that Powell’s diverse campaigns can nonetheless still be understood as a coherent whole, if viewed as part of a long-running, and wide-ranging, debate set against the backdrop of the long-term decline in Britain’s international, military, and economic position in the decades after 1945.

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Crime

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Courtesy of Pan MacMillan via NetGalley. I’ve been talking about catching up with Ann Cleeves’ two existing series for years, but never actually get around to them. So I’m jumping aboard on book 1 of her new series – at least I’ll be up-to-date with it!

The Blurb says: In North Devon, where the rivers Taw and Torridge converge and run into the sea, Detective Matthew Venn stands outside the church as his father’s funeral takes place. The day Matthew turned his back on the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, he lost his family too.

Now he’s back, not just to mourn his father at a distance, but to take charge of his first major case in the Two Rivers region; a complex place not quite as idyllic as tourists suppose.

A body has been found on the beach near to Matthew’s new home: a man with the tattoo of an albatross on his neck, stabbed to death.

Finding the killer is Venn’s only focus, and his team’s investigation will take him straight back into the community he left behind, and the deadly secrets that lurk there.

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Classics Club

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr

This sounds utterly dire – I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I put it on my Classics Club list! What would make anyone in their right mind want to read a book like this? Is the world not depressing enough without us choosing to pollute and poison our minds voluntarily? Not that I’m pre-judging it, of course… 😉

The Blurb says: Few novels have caused as much debate as Hubert Selby Jr.’s notorious masterpiece, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and this Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an introduction by Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting [FF says: that alone should have warned me not to touch it with a ten-foot barge pole].

Described by various reviewers as hellish and obscene, Last Exit to Brooklyn tells the stories of New Yorkers who at every turn confront the worst excesses in human nature. Yet there are moments of exquisite tenderness in these troubled lives. Georgette, the transvestite who falls in love with a callous hoodlum; Tralala, the conniving prostitute who plumbs the depths of sexual degradation; and Harry, the strike leader who hides his true desires behind a boorish masculinity, are unforgettable creations. Last Exit to Brooklyn was banned by British courts in 1967, a decision that was reversed the following year with the help of a number of writers and critics including Anthony Burgess and Frank Kermode. [FF says: Yes, this one’s already halfway to the abandoned heap… ]

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?
(I’m not sure I am… 😉 )