World expositions have long provided evocative settings for literary fare, from E.L. Doctorow’s National Book Award-winning “World’s Fair” (1985) to Erik Larson’s mega-bestseller “The Devil in the White City” (2003) to Jim Lynch’s portrait of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair in “Truth Like the Sun” (2012). Timothy Schaffert has chosen the 1898 World’s Fair in Omaha as the backdrop for his new novel, “The Swan Gondola,” a highly atmospheric entertainment, full of plot twists, historical flavor and paranormal romance.
Schaffert’s fifth novel has a distinctly Victorian flavor. Beneath the intrigue, mystery and historical window dressings of “The Swan Gondola” beats the heart of a complicated love story. When Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, romantic by disposition and orphan by origin, falls hopelessly in love during the formative days of the fair, he sets in motion a romance destined for trouble. The object of Ferret’s affection, the enigmatic Cecily, is an actress in a traveling troupe who plays Marie Antoinette in the chamber of horrors, where hourly she is beheaded for the benefit of fairgoers. Of Cecily, Ferret confides: “I whisper her name. Like a chant, or a prayer. Cecily. I like hearing it, this name of silk and satin. I like feeling the teakettle hiss of it on my tongue.”
In falling for Cecily, Ferret stumbles headlong into a world of one-eyed automatons, mysterious carpetbags and late-night trysts. While vivid, the narrative is slow going at first. But just as the action begins to drag under the weight of Ferret’s infatuation, the foil, William Wakefield, a haunted tycoon and Omaha dignitary with an appetite for the occult and a daredevil streak, shows up on the scene to breathe new life into the novel. In fact, it’s Wakefield’s Jay Gatsbyesque mystique that provides the engine for the narrative over the next several hundred pages.
As a prose stylist, Schaffert leans toward the extravagant without crossing the line into purple. The jaunty Victorian temperament of the prose rings true to the era, as do its thoroughness and attention to detail. While this tendency toward expansive description sometimes slows the pace of the narrative, it is rarely stultifying and serves to create a palpable atmosphere, imbuing the novel with the glossy cinematic quality of a big-budget Hollywood period piece.
Although one can occasionally smell the coffee on Schaffert’s breath as he deals out his wealth of research, among the novel’s virtues is its fascinating portrait of Omaha near the turn of the century. Tourism and high society coexist with the city’s underbelly, and a shimmering white city takes shape on the prairie, amid what was once a ragged Western outpost. Particularly compelling is the evolution of the colorful midway, along with the fair’s infrastructure, and its gradual decline into seediness and neglect. Near the novel’s final act, Ferret is inspired to speculate about the white city’s fate: “The swan gondola, its long neck broken, would sit shipwrecked at the bottom of the dry lagoon, the fossils of leaves speckling the winged hull. The fairgrounds deserved to become a sad, battered monument to every lost thing of beauty.”
In addition to the main players, Schaffert populates the novel with an endearing band of thieves and drunkards , along with orphans, mystics, pickpockets and various “rats of the underground.” Among the liveliest of these characters are Ferret’s loyal friend and confidant August Sweetbriar; a pornographer and anarchist called Rosie the Pole; and a ventriloquist’s dummy, Oscar, who acts as something of a surrogate son to Ferret. Beyond this Dickensian cast, “The Swan Gondola” is steeped in the Victorian tradition, from its moral ambiguity to its preoccupations with wealthy eccentrics, inventors and orphaned children and, finally, to its romantic heart — though the novel ends well short of a wedding.
As in most Victorian novels, Schaffert rewards perseverance in the end — for characters and readers alike — with a satisfying, if unexpected, resolution. Readers who enjoyed Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” or Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” are likely to be captivated by “The Swan Gondola.”
THE SWAN GONDOLA
By Timothy Schaffert
458 pp. $27.95