Book review: The Museum of Ordinary Things By Alice Hoffman


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The Independent Culture

Alice Hoffman has specialised in stories with a surreal tinge, a gentle element of Angela Carter in her worlds of angels, magic and strange-looking women. She has the power to move the reader to tears; novels such as Skylight Confessions and The Ice Queen are relatively short but are beguiling and moving tales of loss and grief.

Where her novels work less successfully is on a large canvas; The Dovekeepers or The Third Angel move through time and generations and, in doing so, somehow let slip the magic that proves so spellbinding in the smaller works. With this novel, Hoffman again turns to history, to tell the story of Eddie Cohen, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant to New York at the beginning of the 20th century, and Coralie, who works in her father’s freak show as a mermaid.

Coralie is in the same vein of many Hoffman heroines: physically different (she has webbed hands), unconventionally beautiful, sensitive to the dark, and lonely. Eddie is a disenchanted young man who has cast off both his father and his father’s religion, to become apprenticed to a photographer. He witnesses fires in the garment factories of the Lower East Side; he conducts a vendetta against the rich factory owners who exploited both him and his father when they first arrived in New York. Meanwhile, Coralie’s father’s business is losing money and he starts to press his daughter into ever more dangerous feats, including swimming the Hudson at night, until finally he offers her up as a kind of underwater sex show. 

Hoffman is best when she takes a moment in history and approaches it from an angle, as she did in Blackbird House. Here, she tries to tell the story of immigrant Jews to New York, the union labour movement, the developing art of photography, Coney Island in the early 20th century. It makes for some heavy-handed writing with details that often sound lifted from history or literature guides (“This kind man brought ... The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, considered radical for its exposure of the wretched conditions of the meat-packing industry”; “Surely it could not compare to Mrs. Vanderbilt’s block-long monstrosity of red bricks and limestone, built in 1882 across from the Plaza Hotel, inspired by a chateau in the Loire Valley”). There are repetitions and explanations of motives, when they would be better left for the reader to come to in his or her own time.

The narrative is assisted by first-person accounts from Coralie and Eddie, written in italics. That central narrative breaks up the intensity of two very personal stories, but official information is contained in all three, and the voices between Eddie and Coralie aren’t terribly different.

This is not one of Hoffman’s best, playing rather to her weaknesses than her considerable strengths.