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by Elizabeth Hand
Mulholland, October 2019
384 pages
ISBN: 0316485888

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Don't let the usual publishing industry game of pair-the-books fool you. Yes, there is some justification to pitch this novel as "THE ALIENIST meets THE DEVIL IN WHITE CITY." It features an immersive historical setting in Chicago, two decades after the trial of the notorious serial killer, H. H. Holmes. But that description doesn't touch its inventiveness and originality.

The year is 1915. Pin is a girl who lives with her fortune-teller mother in a shack adjacent to Riverview Park, a popular amusement park on the outskirts of Chicago. She dresses as boy, though, because it wouldn't be safe for a girl to run errands for a drug dealer, traveling throughout the park to make deliveries as well as into Black neighborhoods and illegal drinking establishments. She has little choice: they are desperately poor, and much of the time Pin goes hungry. The disguise suits her, though, giving her freedom she values and reassurance to her mother, who is often anxious. After all, Pin's sister disappeared two years earlier, a happy, simple girl who was too trusting of strangers. She vanished one day when Pin should have been watching her.

That's why Pin is on alert when another girl in a yellow dress climbs into a boat with a much older man, riding into the dark chute of Hell Gate. When she goes to the ride's exit to watch the boats float out of the darkness, only the man emerges. What happened to the girl? Is there a killer stalking the park?

Pin isn't the only one wondering. An ex-policeman who fell afoul of city corruption and now works for park security suspects girls are in danger. And Pin has her eye on a crazy old man who claims to be a private detective but seems far too interested in watching children as they enjoy the amusements.

CURIOUS TOYS is a fascinating and imaginative novel that doesn't so much evoke the past as immerse us in a very strange, magical, somewhat sinister and disorienting place where working-class Chicagoans went to experience thrills and exoticism and forget the grimness of their daily lives. Along the way, Hand explores gender fluidity, the ragged edge between art and deceit, and the disturbing vision of Henry Darger, a true-life outsider artist whose work is both full of innocence and violence, raising interesting questions about the forms of art and entertainment we enjoy.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, October 2019

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