The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (Scribner)
Turn of the 20th Century Coney Island. A young woman trained to impersonate a mermaid. A Jewish photographer, refugee from Ukrainian pograms, fleeing his own cultural heritage. A former mob boss turned horse-whisperer. A highly cultivated wolf-man, whose life has been transformed by Jane Eyre. A hermit with a pet wolf. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire. A mysterious disappearance. What more do I have to tell you to get you to reach for this book?
Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is an extraordinary thing itself. Yes, it has all of the above elements, any one of which would make me pick it up in a bookstore and think about making a purchase. What it also has is a rich storyline, with engaging, complicated characters, and a trio of narrative voices that leave one hungry for more.
The first two characters I mentioned, the mermaid and the photographer, provide two of the narrative voices. The third is a traditional omniscient narrator. Each chapter opens in one of the two character voices, then transitions to the omniscient narrator. In odd-numbered chapters we get the mermaid. In even-numbered chapters we get the photographer. And each of the three voices sings, distinct and true, creating a story that lets us move in and out of the hearts of its characters, seeing events from multiple perspectives.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things balances dark and light. It’s full of menace, but never becomes hopeless. This is one of those novels that’s worth purchasing while it’s still only available in hardback.