A young woman grows up in her father’s eponymous Coney Island museum at the turn of the 20th century in Hoffman’s (The Dovekeepers, 2011, etc.) novel.
Watched over by her beloved but acid-scarred family housekeeper, motherless Coralie lives a seemingly idyllic early childhood with her intellectual father above the “museum” he runs but doesn’t let her visit. Then, on Coralie’s 10th birthday, in 1903, her father not only escorts her through the exhibit for the first time, but he also puts her on display as “The Human Mermaid.” Born with webbed fingers, Coralie, an expert swimmer, spends her days in a tank wearing her mermaid suit. At first, she loves the work, in what her father staunchly denies is a freak show, and becomes close to other members of the exhibition, particularly the “Wolfman,” with whom Coralie’s housekeeper falls in love. But as business flags, her father arranges special showings, during which adolescent Coralie must swim naked for invited male audiences. By 1911, her father, a Fagin-like villain who hopes to milk rumored sightings of a sea monster, sends Coralie into New York’s waters at odd hours disguised as the monster. On one of her nightly swims, Coralie comes ashore, discovers a young man with a camera at a campfire and is instantly smitten. Eddie Cohen, the son of an Orthodox Jew, has left behind his ethnic and spiritual roots to become a photographer. Motherless like Coralie, Eddie has also been employed in phony magic, in his case, finding missing persons for a fake seer. Their love affair and Coralie’s rebellion against her father play out in a changing New York City as seen through Eddie’s photographic lens.
Hoffman displays an obvious affection for the city, as well as for those society would deem freaks, but readers looking for an evocative, magical take on the immigrant experience would be better served by Helene Wecker’s The Golem and Jinni (2013).