The Museum of Extraordinary Things By Alice Hoffman - book review: 'A tale of star-crossed lovers, freak shows, murder and mystery'


With a cast that includes a host of impossible beings and wondrous creatures, set among the surreal wonderment of Dreamland, Coney Island's now long since destroyed freak show-cum-amusement park, Alice Hoffman's The Museum of Extraordinary Things is teetering on the edge of magical realism even before she throws in such fairytale elements as love at first sight, an abusive parent and beads of bright crimson fresh blood.

Coralie Sardie lives in the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a boardwalk freak show in Coney Island in 1911. Her father, the proprietor, Professor Sardie, may well be "a tailor of the marvellous, a creator of dreams," but he's also a demanding man who treats his employees mercilessly, including his daughter. Coralie was born with webbed fingers, and with a keen eye for exploitability, the Professor quickly set about transforming the rest of her into something equally aquatic. She can hold her breath underwater for very long stretches, and, wearing a blue silk tail, she spends her days among the museum's living exhibits as the Human Mermaid – performances that, now she's matured into a young woman, include mortifying after-hours shows for gentlemen cherry-picked by her father for their deep pockets and lecherous appetites. She's only at peace during her nightly swims in the Hudson River, years of exercise having left her oblivious to the bone-chilling cold and the currents that would drown most who braved them.

Emerging from the water one night she stumbles across a young photographer, and in the flare of a flash bulb falls in love with him. He goes by the name of Eddie Cohen, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who has rejected the orthodoxy of his upbringing and the father who brought him to New York. After Eddie photographs the horrific, and now infamous, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – during which 146 employees, locked in their workrooms died – he finds himself enmeshed in the mystery of a missing girl, the search for whom eventually leads to Professor Sardie's gruesome laboratory.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a tale of star-crossed lovers set against a creepy gothic backdrop of freak shows, murder and mystery. When dealing in these elements, Hoffman excels, but the historical specificity of the period – clumsy explications of the lack of rights for women, workers and children, the rise of unions and ambitions of early feminism – are the weeds in which she becomes entangled. Look closely at this novel and, as with many of Sardie's "freaks", the artifice becomes all too visible