Alice Hoffman's freak show
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The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, £16.99
Lyrical and luminous, The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman’s love story of, and for, bygone New York. Anyone who’s read her Masada novel, The Dovekeepers, already knows that Hoffman is no plain prose author, more a mistress of dreamscape and illusion.
Here, she rolls back the city years to pre-skyscraper 1911, when our people laboured in shmutter sweatshops, hermits dwelt on the Hudson’s uncultivated shores and Coney Island was an emerging fairground wonder. In this hurly-burly world, greed and good, spirituality and fraud collide, as do the fates of young photographer Eddie Cohen (formerly Orthodox Ezekiel of Dickensian poverty) and ace swimmer Coralie, a live exhibit in the eponymous museum, which is more freak show than gallery of natural wonders.
Coralie’s father, the sinister Professor Sardie, pays pitifully few dimes to hire by the season the hirsute Wolfman, the armless Butterfly Girl, the hundred-year-old turtle and the goat boy. But business is slack and he needs more bankable attractions. In Coralie’s webbed fingers and aquatic aptitude Sardie sees his opportunity. He’ll pop her in the Hudson tricked out with green scales and faux tail, then claim he’s fished a mermaid from the icy river. On show in her lonely tank, Coralie is then forced to wiggle, writhe and worse for a prurient male audience. Like many other new citizens of New York, she is ripe for rescue.
So, too, are the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers, for this novel is also Hoffman’s memorial to the 146, mostly Jewish women aged 16 to 23, who died in real life, trapped, or jumping to their deaths when their cramped and airless workspace caught fire in New York’s worst industrial disaster before the Twin Towers. In order to prevent pilfering or unauthorised work-breaks, the seamstresses (on six or seven dollars an arduous week) had been locked in for hours on end.
Hoffman’s harrowing description of falling figures in a scene aflame hauntingly prefigures 9/11. You want to turn away from the “clutter of personal trinkets, hair ribbons, purses, love letters, combs, all floating like debris in the drenched gutters, scattered over the cement like confetti”. But you can’t resist exploring, along with Eddie and his mermaid, what suspicious circumstances provoked the disappearance of a certain pretty seamstress with hair “the colour of snow”.
The book takes as its text the notion that “love is what you least expect” and is shot through with signs and wonders. Before Hoffman’s done, she rakes the embers of 1911’s second historic fire — when light bulbs popped, turning the Dreamland amusement Park’s Hellgate ride to ashes.
It’s a novel in which fire and water play elemental havoc, while New York is a character in its own right — a city founded on tears, sweat and corruption but raised on great hope.
Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer