‘The Museum of Extraordinary Things’, by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, RRP£16.99/Scribner, RRP$27.99, 384 pages

In her famous essay on Montaigne, Virginia Woolf wrote that “beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself. This soul, or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside us.” The difficulty of finding authentic expression for the “life within us” was something Woolf returned to again and again in her writing. It is this precise difficulty that lies, too, at the heart of Alice Hoffman’s entrancing new novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things.

Coralie Sardie is the shy, compliant daughter of a widower known as the Professor, “a scientist and a magician” in his daughter’s eyes. Coralie’s deformed hands have kept her removed from a normal life enjoyed by other children of her age. Instead, she has been trapped in the extraordinary world of the freaks and oddities collected by her father for his famous museum on Coney Island: the Butterfly Girl with wings instead of arms, the Wolfman whose face is covered in thick hair, the unborn monkey twins preserved for perpetuity in formaldehyde. Loneliness is so integral to her existence it is never named, finding expression instead in her abject obedience to her father and his increasingly perverse projects. He tells her she will be “the wonder of the world”, and she longs to believe him; like abused children the world over, Coralie is bound by love to what harms her most.

Set in New York in 1911, the year Coralie turns 18, the novel ranges from the flourishing amusement arcades of Coney Island to the Chelsea docks, to the grand mansions of the Upper East Side, the wilderness north of Central Park and the wretched tenements of the Lower East Side. Buildings, and the humans they contain, serve as a powerful metaphor for the tension between the outer and inner lives we lead, willingly or otherwise; the distinct tasks of communicating oneself and being oneself.

Coralie’s story is told in alternating passages of first and third person narrative, allowing us to experience her from within and without, as well as in the unfolding present and the recollected past. There are echoes of Miranda and Prospero in the dark despotism of the relationship between Coralie and her father, the island setting, the isolation, the filial revolt against paternal rule. But unlike Prospero, the Professor’s devotion to his daughter is entirely self-serving, and unlike Caliban, the “monsters” in Coralie’s world are a source of comfort not disgust – the mirror in which she eventually sees the truth about his scientific “creations”, the dyes he uses to tint green the raised bumps on the skin of the alligator man, the wolf’s teeth he attaches to his exhibits’ jaws to make them appear more vicious: “I had thought my father could make miracles, but I was wrong. He could only possess them.”

Interwoven with Coralie’s story is that of Ezekiel Cohen, another motherless child, similarly washed up on America’s east coast – or so it seems. Having narrowly survived anti-Semitic pogroms in Ukraine, Ezekiel and his father have made their way to New York to join the exploited legions of Jewish and Italian immigrants eking out a living in the factories of the Garment District. Ezekiel works alongside his father, proudly at first, but increasingly sickened by the poverty and impotence of their lives.

In a moment’s violent rejection of this existence, Ezekiel abandons his father and his religion, changes his name to Eddie and reinvents himself as a photographer, specialising in crime scenes and disasters. Lost and angry, he hides behind the camera lens, convincing himself “the human eye was not capable of true sight”. It takes a stolen watch, a murdered girl and a wizard to make him understand that “the past was what we carried with us, threaded to the future . . . Fate was both what we were given and what we made for ourselves.”

This is a novel about the struggle for authenticity and freedom to be oneself, powered by those two most transformative of elements, fire and water. Hoffman is author of 28 novels and she knows how to work her themes here, letting them build through repetition and variation, like musical motifs, accruing resonance and deepening meaning as the stories of Coralie and Eddie progress and converge. The ocean beyond Coney Island, where Coralie is compelled to swim for hours on end in all weathers; the Hudson river, with its lethal, hidden currents; and, most gruesomely, the water tank in which Coralie is exhibited at her father’s museum, are all embedded in the plot and at the same time potent symbols for what Jung called “the unlived life”, the regenerative and destructive forces within us. Or as Coralie puts it: “There are a thousand ways to drown, and a thousand ways to rescue someone.”

Three real fires frame the novel’s action – the fire that engulfed the Ukrainian shtetl where Eddie was born; the terrible fire that destroyed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory near Washington Park in 1911, killing more than 100 young seamstresses; and the fire, that same year, that reduced to ash the newly renovated amusement park on Coney Island, the appropriately named Dreamland. It is in dreams and dreaming, Hoffman seems to suggest, that passion for authentic being is either drowned or set alight.

At times, the novel’s densely woven plot threatens to overwhelm its characters, the historical information is not always as bedded-in as it might have been, and one or two plot twists are decidedly unconvincing. But small gripes aside, Hoffman has amply succeeded in conjuring the teeming press of life in early 20th-century New York, laying before us, in all its splendour and horror, the museum of extraordinary things that is humanity itself.

Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)

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