In a very convenient circumstance, this book, which has been on my TBR list for a few months, was also chosen as the January book for one of my book clubs. I love when things like that work out. Also, since it wasn’t towards the top of my list, I was unlikely to get to it this soon otherwise. Perfect. Before we get into the review, I’d also like to preface by saying that I read this over the Holidays, between travel and to and from visiting both sides of the family, which means my time spent reading was fairly disjointed. I don’t think that affected/changed my opinions too much, but I figure that it’s only fair to let you know that ahead of time.
I was first drawn to this novel by the cover – the sepia toned book theme is pretty much the stuff of my dreams. And the little blurb on the inside, about a man (Simon) who receives a peculiar book in the mail one day, finds the name of his grandmother in it, and is swept of into an adventure of unraveling his family’s history and past misfortune, while trying to prevent it from happening again in the present day, sounds super entertaining. And while that is, technically, what the story is about, there is a lot more to it that was completely unexpected. There are traveling circuses, “freak show” acts (historical and modern) that border on and sometimes just straight cross into the unbelievable, and a family curse that was unknowingly cast years ago and now must be broken or Simon’s sister will die. Oh, and there are tarot cards. I love books with tarot cards. Like, they are one of my biggest soft spots in stories and when they play a large role in a book, as they do here, I just…it’s awesome.
“Ryzhkova was accustomed to tarot with its layers of meaning, interpretations, and reversals, and how a picture might look one way but contain a contrary truth. Used to her silent apprentice, she had forgotten that language itself was as subtle and slippery as her cards, and that words contained hidden seeds that blossomed with a speaker’s intent. A wish for safety meant nothing if the force behind it was a desire to kill. Though she spoke of love and protection, dread, grief, and anger bled through. Each word that fell from her tongue bound itself to paper with a small part of her soul, infusing the cards not with love as she thought, but with a hex burned strong and deep by fear.”
Plotwise, I think this story was really well crafted and executed. There were a lot of little details and loose ends, both present day and in the past, and any number of them could have been unsatisfactorily wrapped up. The intergenerational connectedness, the parallels between family members (both regarding personalities, skills and life trajectories), were clearly developed but not too obvious, which I appreciated. I particularly enjoyed the way the characters of the present day were all drawn together because of their ancestors/pasts. Again, they were all smoothly interwoven, but not overly or crudely. There was a finesse that I really respected. The pacing was, I felt, a little slow to start. This is partially why I gave you my earlier caveat about how/when I was reading this, because maybe was part of the problem. In any case, I thought things took a little too long to pick up or mean something, and I found myself struggling to stay engaged. Things did start to pick up eventually though, and at least the last third was definitely moving me along at a much more captivating pace.
For some reason, I had a difficult time connecting to the characters themselves. I loved their story, for sure, and as I mentioned, the pacing did pick up. But I do not think I ever fully connected to the characters. In fact, at multiple points along the way, I found I was forgetting names. And even now as I write this review, I have to think hard to remember even Simon’s name, and he was our protagonist. I just felt, all along, a sort of strange feeling of disconnect, or disjointedness, in my reading, that didn’t allow to me to get into the characters and their experiences the way I normally do. It was like there was a fog over the whole story, and I couldn’t quite see through it. Perhaps it was the writing style, which was a sort of distant mysterious, that did it. Or maybe it was Simon himself, as the narrator, since he was a sort of withdrawn, waiflike person himself. And perhaps it was just that the story itself had a very sinister, eerie, otherworldly sort of vibe (which don’t get me wrong, was very cool), and that made it hard to connect with the people in the story on a personal level. But whatever it was, that’s probably the biggest reason I felt less than blown away by this story.
To end on a positive note though, this was a fascinatingly atmospheric read that truly delivered with its story and excellent mood-setting. I absolutely loved the sepia toned sketches throughout the novel (done by the author herself). They added to the air of mystery and ominousness and gave lovely dimension to the overall impression left by the book. This was a setting and ambiance-based success for me and, as a reader, though I will not remember the characters for long, the unsettling aura that story left me with is definitely sticking around.