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An extraordinary museum – Alice Hoffman’s magic realism


The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman            Simon & Schuster  $19.75

Apologies, readers – writing deadlines have pushed my pen into other directions recently, but I will try and make amends!

Alice Hoffman is the author of 1998 Oprah’s Book Club pick Here on Earth. This, her 24th novel, has all the hallmarks her fans have come to expect – magic and mystery, the richness of folktale, the haunting power of myth.

“Museum” is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Coralie is the only daughter of “Professor” Sardie, the proprietor of the The Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island, resplendent with freaks such as the Wolfman, the Birdwoman, Butterflygirl and many animals, including an ancient tortoise. But the Museum is failing to bring in crowds. Coralie, a keen swimmer, is turned into a human mermaid, resplendent with swishing tail, as she dives and surfaces in a ginormous tank. When she turns 18, her father forces her to perform a lascivious routine before high paying, male-only customers to make ends meet. She also accompanies Sardie as he tries to recruit more and more oddities and freaks in low-life parts of town. By now she loathes both her father and the Museum, and wishes to flee but has nowhere to go. And she also has a secret shame: she was born with webbed fingers.

After training in the Hudson River (in 1911 there were repeated sightings of a silvery “sea monster” and Sardie believes he can capitalise on Coralie’s swimming expertise by turning her into this beast), she comes across Eddie, a young man who lives in the woods. He has fled his Orthodox Jewish community and is now earning a living on the fringes of society as a newspaper photographer and detective. As a young boy he was apprenticed to the “Seer of Rivington Street,” and has become adept at tracking down missing persons.

Coralie and Eddie are immediately drawn to each other. They share much in common. Both are outcasts and live on their wits, seeking a place to belong. Their paths cross briefly, disperse and meet again, brought together through a tragic and true event, the famous fire at Brooklyn’s Triangle shirt factory. When it burns down, killing 146 Jewish (and mainly female) workers, Eddie captures the blaze on film. He is subsequently hired by the father of one of the missing seamstresses, and during his investigation, is pulled back into Coralie’s orbit, when he discovers Sardie has found a drowned woman in the river and has gruesome plans of his own for the body.

There is much to admire in this story – the impact of modernisation and industrialisation on New York – electricity had begun “snaking through Brooklyn, turning night into day,” the birth of the union movement and the exploitation of migrant workers are beautifully described. So too is the twilight world in which Coralie lives, with its freaks and fantasies. At the same time, something jars. The plot, which combines the real-time tragedy of the Triangle conflagration with a purely imagined and grotesque world, never quite gels. Coralie’s world of magic and peep-shows blends uncomfortably with that of a lapsed Orthodox Jew. Still, Hoffman has researched this piece well and for the most part, her prose sings.