The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

The Museum of Extraordinary ThingsNew York is a melting pot, nearly everyone has come from somewhere else to be there, and Hoffman’s new novel is the tale of two young people whose parents came there from Europe.

You would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvellous. I can tell you with certainty that such things exist […]. My father kept me away from such anomalies when I was young, though I lived above the exhibition that he owned in Coney Island, the Museum of Extraordinary Things.

Coralie Sardie, a girl with webbed fingers and on the cusp of womanhood, tells us of her life as one of her father’s exhibits. With the aid of blue dye, a tail and secret breathing tube she spends her days as a mermaid in what the Professor insists is a scientific display, not a freak show.  He is an eccentric Frenchman, part scientist, part showman magician – his museum is not without its illusions to create spectacle. It is 1911, and times are moving on. The new entertainment park Dreamland is being built on the island, and it’ll take their business away. The Professor is searching for the perfect monster to bring the crowds back to him, working feverishly away in his locked cellar.

Coralie swims at night, free in the water, unaware that she has been spotted by Eddie, a young man fishing on the banks. Eddie, a Russian-Ukrainian immigrant arrived as a child but, unwilling to conform, has renounced his Jewishness and struck out on his own.  Having worked as a runner for a famous psychic, he is now a photographer but eschews the posed shots that will bring him a steady wage.  He searches for truth through his lens – the photos he took of the Triangle fire in which many perished locked inside the shirt factory continue to haunt him, and he will help in the search for a young woman whose body wasn’t found.

Alternating between Coralie and Eddie, Hoffman shows us what it was like to live as an outsider in New York at this time of great development in the city and how their paths criss-cross until they meet properly and fall in love. Each chapter starts off with either Coralie or Eddie telling us their own back story before coming back to the present in the third person, and both will also find the truth about themselves along the way.

There is a rich cast of supporting characters on both sides and you can’t help but like them.  Eddie has his dog Mitts, the softest pit bull you’re ever likely to meet, and the mysterious Beck – a Magwitch like character who lives in a shack by the river and sees everything that goes on. Then there is Maureen, employed by the Professor to bring up Coralie, her face scarred with acid burns, and Mr Morris, the Wolfman, urbane and educated yet reviled for his hirsute appearance.  It is entirely appropriate that Maureen and Morris will find each other too, and one of the most arresting scenes in the book happens when Eddie chances upon the museum’s ‘exhibits’ having tea in the garden, and persuades them to have their photos taken…

The beauty of the world had been apparent to him through the lens of his camera, but he hadn’t known a human being could be as marvellous as a marsh or a tree or a field of grass. Maureen stood between the rows of lettuce and peas, staring straight at him, hiding nothing. She hadn’t even thought to take off her apron. Her face was beautiful and ruined and utterly devoid of artifice. When Eddie had finished her portrait, he went to her and got down on one knee. “My gratitude,” he said.

Hoffman is known for her ability to weave a touch of magic into many of her stories, and she does this here too, but it is the magician’s glamour not any natural magic.  When the illusion is peeled away it reveals the ordinary behind the extraordinary.  What is extraordinary about the ordinary in this novel is that we see that the ordinary is perhaps the extraordinary. I know I’ve overused those words, but they just fit and I’m sure that you’ll understand my drift.

Eddie’s lens is able to pierce the illusion and get to the truth and, as he shows, the truth can be as painful as it is transcendent. Fire is also a powerful metaphor for cleansing, and the terrible factory fire, which is a historical fact, was instrumental in starting to improve working conditions, but only after 146 garment workers died.  Dreamland itself later went up in smoke too, and this pair of real conflagrations frame the narrative.

There’s something terribly romantic and indeed magical about the notion of a fairground all lit up at night, music wafting on the breeze. This novel certainly has that dreamlike quality. Hoffman has also brought the areas of Coney Island on the tip of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan in the 1910s to life with great vividness. There’s always that haze on the water though to keep our imagination fired up too. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is one of Alice Hoffman’s best novels. Highly recommended.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors. She’s wanted to visit Coney Island ever since seeing Big.

Alice Hoffman, The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Simon & Schuster, London, April 2014) 978-1471112133, 384pp., hardback.

Read Annabel’s accompanying Q&A article with Alice Hoffman here.

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