New York, 1910. Coney Island and the tenements of the Lower East Side, to be exact. The concrete behemoth we are all familiar with did not exist, the endless arteries of transportation only beginning to be built. Coney Island was where "common" New York went to play. The country was still gripped by the upper/lower class reality, fueled in part by the waves of immigrants who would take any job, no matter how demeaning. Wealth (as always) was built by "us" denying "them" a fair share. Workers were not regarded as human, and were often locked in to prevent theft or malingering. The stage was set for the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Coralie Sardi, kept sequestered by her domineering father, is turned into a "mermaid" for his Coney Island attraction, The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Trained for years to endure excruciating cold, Coralie flips around in a tank, giving visitors a thrill as they watch her and other "freaks of nature". Click for more...but no spoilers.
In the tenements of lower Manhattan, Ezekiel Cohen sees his father as humiliatingly weak, and when the man flings himself into the Hudson River, Ezekiel leaves the family tenement and apprentices to a photographer. In lyrical prose, in diary entries (or are they musings set on paper?) by Coralie and Ezekiel-Eddy, interspersed with third-person narrative, Hoffman brings the bustle and noise, the filth and despair, of New York in the early 1900's. Hard to believe it was such a short time ago. Eddy, now a photographer, witnesses the horrors of the Triangle fire. Coralie, repressed and dominated by her selfish and cruel father, dreams of love. This was a hard book to put down. A 5. Historical fiction at its very best. Superb selection for a book club.