At first blush, Karen Engelmann’s debut novel, “The Stockholm Octavo,” sounds like Ambien in paper form: It’s a costume drama that revolves around card playing, spiced with intricate details about ladies’ fans.
Sweet dreams, dear reader!
But actually, once it gets moving, there’s a full deck of piquant pleasures in this arch novel about late-18th-century Sweden in the final months of King Gustav’s reign. Engelmann captures Stockholm at a turbulent confluence of political and social upheaval, a moment when new forces of capitalism and democracy were crashing against old aristocratic ideals. The fact that she embroiders this adventure in satin and kid leather only makes it all the more elegant and precarious. This was, after all, a time of volatile contradictions that had already exploded in America and France.
Engelmann lived in Sweden for almost 10 years and worked as an art director for Ikea, which you might see reflected in her story’s careful attention to design. No sepia tones for these 200-year-old scenes. Every room here vibrates with color. Even a relatively modest shop, for instance, “was painted in broad horizontal stripes of cheery lemon and cream, and the white crown moldings were like sculpted meringue oozing against the ceiling.” And Engelmann is just as captivating with the gorgeous outfits these people don to entertain and impress one another at a time when clothing was a strict marker of class and status. The antique etchings sprinkled throughout these pages are a nice touch, too — and a reminder, if any was needed, of a bound book’s sensuous advantages over an e-book.
The story alternates chapter by chapter between an omniscient narrator and an ambitious customs agent named Emil Larsson, who has clawed his way up from poverty. Determined to find a wife, Emil appeals to his friend Mrs. Sparrow, the king’s fortune teller, who runs a fashionable salon. After hours, she specializes in an occult card game called the Octavo, an eight-day exercise of divination that’s meant to reveal the eight people who will bring about Emil’s future happiness. “This is the knowledge of the secret societies,” Mrs. Sparrow intones, “ancient knowledge reserved for an elite.”
But as you know from the pamphlets handed to you by those earnest disciples on the street corner, “ancient knowledge reserved for an elite” is always really, really boring. The Octavo gives the novel its mysterious title, but it also clogs the plot for more than a week as Emil returns again and again to Mrs. Sparrow’s salon to see what new card she’ll lay down: The Companion, the Teacher, the Trickster, the Prisoner, etc., etc., on they plod, night after night, filling the first 90 pages with action that’s about as engaging as watching Jeane Dixon play solitaire.
Soon enough, those ladies’ fans blow in considerable excitement. Who knew little bones and folded skin could inflame such treachery? Engelmann emphasizes what historical fiction too often skimps on: She captures the lost enterprises and values of another time, the weird customs that strike us as alien and foolish. One of her most engaging scenes is a class held at a palatial home in which wealthy young women learn how to open and wave their fans to catch the attention — and more — of potential suitors. “Engagement is the first phase of battle,” says the instructor, as though speaking from the Ikea playbook. “Captivation is the first step in communication. Offer something of interest, and you will get something in return.” And then we see a demonstration of the teacher’s remarkable dexterity, her ability to wave her intentions across a room: “Fans were slapped and dropped and thrust. This increased in volume and tempo until the room was filled with a hum, a buzz, out of which no single word could be taken. There was only the sound of desire.” It’s simultaneously bizarre and familiar — a reminder of just how absurd our iPhone tweeting will look to people 200 years from now.
We also meet a lively collection of craftsmen who have faded into the mists of history, including a fine fan-maker from France who’s struggling to compete with the new craze for mass-produced objects; an apothecary who tests her opiates on cats and nasty servants; and a cross-dressing stationer who pretends to be his wealthy clients while writing their invitations and notes.
All of these characters and Emil are swept up into the cyclone of an aristocrat called The Uzanne, who wields her exotic fans of “dark provenance” as lethally as a samurai his sword. She’s a fascinating feminist character, wholly devoted to the most traditional ideals, but determined to shape history with the only weapons available to women at this time: her money, her sex appeal and her fan: “There are some who might protest that a bit of skin and sticks in the hands of a pampered lady would hardly accomplish such a feat,” The Uzanne tells her stationer, “but consider the impact of a parchment nailed to the door by Martin Luther.”
That sounds like an absurd overreach, but Engelmann craftily unfolds her fictional story pleat by pleat within the real history of 1792, when King Gustav assumed he could help Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette survive the uprising in their own country. Emil realizes too late that he is “struggling to stay afloat in this great tide of events beyond my knowledge, experience, or desire.” Even knowing the king’s fate won’t keep you from racing to find out if anyone can stop The Uzanne from using her wiles to change history.
Before long, Emil’s private search for love bursts into a marvelously complicated scheme to save Sweden. “The Stockholm Octavo” may at first unfurl too slowly for some readers, but when The Uzanne starts fanning the flames of this plot, it burns hot.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter@RonCharles.
THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO
By Karen Engelmann
Ecco. 416 pp. $26.99