Alice Hoffman – The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Reading Challenge 2017 – 1/32)

               museum So, apparently Alice Hoffmann is a „beloved writer of America” – and still, this is the first time I heard of her. I was looking for something for my 2016 challenge – something that was published in 2016. This turned out, however, to have been translated into Polish in 2016, and published in Poland in 2016. Originally published earlier, so not good for my challenge. But got me interested enough to get to my “to read” list.

                Coralie’s father is an eccentric owner of “museum of extraordinary things.” He collects them and puts them up on display. Among them there are also humans – a man-wolf, or a girl-butterfly. And Coralie, a girl-mermaid, born with extra skin between her fingers. Thought to swim ever since she was a baby, and to hold her breath under water for more than any other human, she is first displayed at the age of 10. But every new “miracle” shown in the museum gets boring after some time and then Coralie, trained to do anything her father tells her to, gets new role.

                Then there is Eddie, a Ukrainian Jew, who fled Ukraine together with his father, after their village had been attacked and Eddie’s mother murdered. He was working since he was 8 years old – with his father, they lived in poor conditions, and Eddie got to know the dark side of life at the very young age. His meeting with a famous photographer changed him, and he became obsessed with photography.

                Set in the early XX century in New York, this is a magical story of love between two people coming from completely different places; two people that should probably never have met. Coralie has to flee from his father and her life as his slave, and Eddie must come to terms with his past and forgive his father. Their love gives them strength and allows them to create their own little world, where nobody has to be a slave anymore.

                Where should I start? With New York, of course. New York, that is presented as a magical, beautiful place. But alongside all the magic, human tragedies happen every day. Like people being forced to work long hours in terrible conditions, for minimal wage. The story is set while the first protests of labor workers began. Eddie gets a chance to photograph an aftermath of an (in)famous fire in a factory where young women were working. They couldn’t escape, because the owners – who did manage to flee – had closed the doors. So, they either jumped and died, or burned to death. This tragedy is still widely remembered, and was a big and important step towards better conditions of work, played a significant role in creating and operating of unions. And, no matter how weird it may sound, that was my favorite part of the book. All the historic moments, all the descriptions of what New York looked like, and how people used to live then and there, were my favorite parts.

                Another thing I liked was the tone of the book. It was prose, but at most times seemed just like poetry. Sad, melancholic, depressing, beautiful poetry. This is not a book that is read for the action, but for those words, and for the mastery of creating this different universe, wonderful, but so terribly sad at the same time. At these times when I felt this atmospheric writing, I could understand what it means that Alice Hoffman is “a beloved writer.” She can enchant with her writing, with her words, with her poetry-like story-telling.

                This story is also about humankind, and of being different. About loneliness. Fighting, and fear, and trying to find one’s place in the world, all the while knowing that – because of our differences, weirdness, if you may – that we may never find it. Story is set in times that are dangerous for everyone who’s not strong, and at least a little bit different than mainstream. But it also bring to my mind a question – “Has there ever been a time where it wasn’t dangerous to be different? Has or will it ever be a time where you don’t have to be strong to be different?” The book doesn’t give the answer, but it does give some sort of sense of completion and hope at the end. Like in fairy tales, love conquers all.

                The fairy tale tone of the book is the only thing that saved me being completely furious at the “love-at-first-sight” thread. Have I mentioned I hate those? Well, I do. In this book we have a very annoying example of that. Seriously. No words exchanged, and they knew they were meant for each other. But, somehow, it doesn’t bother me as much as it would in a different book. Probably because of all this magical, poetic, fairy-tale like tone. I can’t, however, not add, that it’s kind of ironic, that in a book that describes people’s cruelty so vividly, there is a place for people’s love – and not just any love. Pure love. No doubt love. Destined for each other love.

                On the whole, the book is full of contrasts. It describes poor, hopeless districts, but it also describes parts of the city that were full of life and glamour. It describes the life of immigrants very realistically, and showing great empathy. Shows violence and pursuit of power, craziness and obsession, longing for understanding, finding a soul mate. And in the middle of it all, we have two lost souls; young love. Alongside all this brutality and cruelty, there’s still a place for love and hope.

My rating: 8/10

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