Timothy Schaffert’s new novel, “The Swan Gondola” (Riverhead Books, 458 pages, $27.95), is a tale of love and longing set against the backdrop of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. The book is populated by the quirky and the grotesque, the hopeful and the lost, the scions of wealth and the fomenters of anarchy. Telling the tale is Ferrett Skerritt, a lovelorn ventriloquist who, we soon realize, we just might be familiar with from another tale entirely.
Ferrett falls hard for Cecily, a member of an acting troupe in town for the fair. She portrays Marie Antoinette, losing her head again and again in the fair’s Chamber of Horrors. Ferrett is enchanted: “ ... Cecily was all worry and fret. She could make everything seem true, even the fallen eyelash on her powdered cheek, even the curl of her own brown hair that slipped loose from beneath the wig. Even the little trip up the step when her shoe caught in her dress. I heard a lock of her wig sizzle as it got a lick from a candle flame. She just reached up to twist away a bit of the spark, as easy as you please.”
The notion that Cecily “could make everything seem true” is central to “The Swan Gondola,” a story in which many people and things are not what they first appear to be. I don’t mean, however, to suggest the book is weighted down with symbolism and elusive threads of meaning. It is rich in allusions to the book that provided the seed for Schaffert’s story (I’m reluctant to name source here, though most readers will identify it immediately and, I suspect, be delighted), but it is also a straightforward romance garnished appealingly with the weird and the wondrous.
On occasion the mechanisms that keep the story moving along become visible to the reader, giving us a glimpse at the workings of Schaffert’s wizardry. But given the story he is telling and the person at the center of that story, this is wholly appropriate.
Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.