I’ve read Alice Hoffman books before but not for several years and in my memory her magical-y tales of witches and fables were the stuff of light hearted beach reads. So it was with pleasure to discover, with The Museum of Extraordinary Things, that she’s changed and, dare I say, matured somewhat.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things tells the intertwining stories of Coralie Sardie, a curiosity kept captive at the Museum by her father, and Eddie (Ezekiel) Cohen, a mourning Jewish boy who leaves his father and tries to make his way in New York first as a runner for a mystic and then as a photographer. Each story is told in turn, a chapter in the character’s voice and then a further chapter moving that character’s story on told in the third person, before returning to the other. Eventually, of course, the two stories combine, as you knew they would, and resolve in a finale of fire, beasts, love and death.
The story is structured between two turbulent events that took place in New York in 1911 – the devastating fires at the Triangle shirtwaist factory that killed many workers, and the Coney Island Dreamland fire. Both events are described in detail and with a compassion that nevertheless doesn’t flinch from describing the more unsavoury human side of tragedy. The grim details continue, first in the telling of how the ‘wonders’ – a collection of genetic abnormalities, scientific curiosities and trickery – are treated by Coralie’s father, including some terrible experiences for Coralie herself, and then in the familiar tales of worker exploitation by rich factory owners.
Hoffman’s characters leap off the page but with a grounded realism that was perhaps missing from her earlier, whimsical works. This has its fair share of grit and is the better for it. So here we meet Mr Morris, wolfman, an armless girl who earns her keep as a human butterfly at the Museum, a hermit with a pet wolf and Maureen, a beauty who is burned with acid by a mysterious man before devoting her life to Coralie.
Hoffman writes in the back about her connections to New York and her affection for the city is evident in every page – it’s clear in each character and in each description. The history of this ever changing city, its dirt and corruption always near, is brought to life here in an engrossing read. There are books that succeed because the author has concentrated their efforts on creating a strong world of clear characters and good plotting. Sometimes it feels hard to master these basics of storytelling but Hoffman manages it with aplomb in The Museum of Extraordinary Things.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things is published by Simon and Schuster