20th Century curiosity museum a web of lies

The Book Beat: The human mermaid

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Alice Hoffman’s 2014 novel “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” unveils an eerie and haunting world sitting along Coney Island’s boardwalk in the early 20th century.

The story follows Professor Sardie, a former magician turned collector, curator and sometimes creator of wondrous “natural oddities.” Coralie, Sardie’s daughter, provides a youthful and sheltered perspective of her father’s work and the museum business that runs on the first floor of her home.

Coralie is forbidden by her father to enter the museum until her 10th birthday; however, she catches glimpses of the curious museum staff as they arrive at work each day. Sardie employs the Wolf Man, Siamese twins and a Bee Woman, among others.

From Coralie’s perspective, her father is decorous and generous. He offers employment to those who might otherwise feel the harshness and ostracism associated with a life with physical differences.

But on Coralie’s 10th birthday, her father takes her to the museum where she notices a large tank labelled “The Human Mermaid.”

“I did not need further instructions,” Coralie said. “I understood that all of my life had been mere practice for this very moment.”

Sardie enlists his daughter as a major exhibit at the museum in part because of her naturally webbed fingers: “Between her fingers there was a birth defect, a thin webbing that the indigo tint emphasized. This was the reason she wore gloves in public. ... Still, she despised herself because of this single flaw.”

Sardie trained Coralie for years to be an accomplished swimmer, and she learned to hold her breath for long periods of time. With a silk tail and blue dye applied each morning, Coralie is a star attraction for years.

As Coralie’s work at the museum begins, her perspective from the mermaid tank offers a glimpse outside the sheltered life she has known, and the veil between truth and myth is lifted.

Alongside Professor Sardie’s illusions are actual historical events, such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: “At first, the falling girls had seemed like blackbirds. Bright cardinals, bone-white doves, swooping blackbirds in velvet collared coats. But when they hit the cement, the terrible truth of the matter was revealed.”

The historical fire provides a mystery for a young cameraman, Eddie, to solve. The mystery links Eddie, Coralie and Dr. Sardie together, as webs of lies about Dr. Sardie’s past are brought to light.

Hoffman’s writing offers majestic and entrancing passages alongside gritty and disturbing scenes.

One of Hoffman’s signature themes is women who are trapped by their situations and persevere to break free of constraint. Readers who enjoyed Hoffman’s “The Dove Keepers” or Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” will likely enjoy this story.

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