The reviews are rolling in for Elizabeth Hand’s new novel, Curious Toys!
Hand makes the Hell Gate a richly layered study of horror and sin, sex and truth, American piety and American reality. But she does so without fuss or strain, glancing up against the big ideas so gently that, as Pin bumps along in her little boat, readers can feel like we’re the ones coming up with them. She has crafted Curious Toys as a tense, short-chaptered contemporary thriller, the kind where you might think “I’ll read just two more pages” and then catch yourself having gulped down twenty. Yet like Pin herself the novel is something much more complex than it at first might appear.
"Curious Toys" delves into the various characters' psyches showing how they are affected by the early 20th century, poverty and despair. For many of these characters, their future is as bleak as their present with no escape or options. But Pin's enterprising nature, intelligence and innate curiosity may be salvation for her and her fragile, drug-addicted mother. The author peppers "Curious Toys" with cameos of real people including Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery and assorted actresses whose identities are only revealed at the end. The movie studio Essanay helped launch the careers of many silent era stars before eventually being absorbed by Warner Bros. Henry Darger was a real outsider artist and writer.
With short, breathlessly paced chapters and constantly shifting points of view, “Curious Toys” is itself like a carnival ride: alternatively dazzling and terrifying, disorienting and marvelous.
But while Hand paces her mystery with classic precision, the real reward of “Curious Toys” lies in its richly textured panorama of Chicago during a crucial period of change, and in its vivid characters. Riverview, of course, is legendary among older Chicagoans, and Hand presents it not as a generic carnival-murder setting, but as a kind of distorting mirror of cultural anxieties, many of which are still with us today. Pin’s own gender identity, complicated by pretending to be a boy (and at one later point, pretending to be a girl again), is echoed by Max’s half-man, half-woman sideshow act. A wood near the park is known as a place for assignations among gay men. Among the sideshows were “Infant Incubators,” an actual early form of neonatal care, but at the time treated as tawdry entertainment.
While the amusement park setting enables Hand to ramp up the tension with a toolbox of strange and creepy people and places to play with, she never falls prey to pointless sensationalism. This makes Pin’s story — her quest to discover the truth, not just about what happened in Hell Gate, but about who she is and how she might find a place in the world — more vivid.