“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” by Alice Hoffman – Review

New York, 1911.  Two of society’s outcasts cross paths, both of them longing to outrun their wretched history, but neither of them prepared for the places to which their meeting will lead.  Coralie is a deformed, web-fingered girl who has spent an oppressive childhood under the suffocating rule of her father, the proprietor of the titular museum that houses freaks of nature both animal and human.  Ezekiel is a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, who has renounced his faith and community to lead a solitary life roaming through the city’s bleak underbelly, becoming a photographer who desires only to capture the truth of humanity in both its beauty and its ugliness.  It takes a series of tragic events to bring these two together, and both are unwittingly dragged into the repercussions that follow.

This could be called a love story, certainly, although the traditional boy-meets-girl moment doesn’t happen until the tale is well underway.   A more accurate description would be that The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a story about love.  The romance between the two central characters is just one thread in a web made up of love as it appears in all its forms: the love of family, love that exists only as the pain of grief, love for oneself and, one of the book’s most fundamental themes, the control and manipulation that masquerade as love in order to keep the vulnerable in a state of submission.  This, then, is a love story with a satisfyingly dark heart.

The freak show of the title provides a deliciously gothic backdrop for much of the book, but the darkness extends far beyond the walls of the sinister museum.  The author leads us into the nooks and crannies of a New York that feels Dickensian in its bleakness; it’s in the world of brothels, sweat shops and crowded tenements where many of the book’s colourful characters are to be found.  And the real human aberrations, we soon discover, are not in the cages at the museum but walking the streets of the city, protected from scrutiny and judgement by their social status or powerful connections.

If you enjoyed The Miniaturist or The Night Circus I think you’ll love this.  All three books blend the everyday with an element of the mysterious.  Like The Miniaturist in particular, The Museum of Extraordinary Things has a sinister undertone that creeps ever closer to the surface of the story as events turn from gently creepy to genuinely horrific.  I absolutely adored it – make it your next read!

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