Simon Watson, an about-to-be-unemployed librarian, discovers an eerie truth about his family when he gains possession of a mysterious book: all the women in his family die young, by drowning, always on July 24. With the help of a used book dealer, a deck of tarot cards, and some of his librarian friends, he races against the calendar to save his sister by researching his haunting genealogy, beginning with a circus menagerie in the 18th century. In chapters that alternate between Simon's story and that of his family history the pieces are put together.
As a librarian, Simon discusses his work, and tells of how people still use libraries, as well he throws in a few other clever references about libraries.
In Simon's tale we see
- the quotidian work of "...stacking, sorting, scanning, cataloging, researching, letter and grant writing, fund begging, and book repairing"
- the old-school research as Simon sits and looks up old obituaries on a microfiche reader
- and the almost obsessive drive of librarians to help even those who might be less than deserving as his friend/acquaintance Liz Reed (what a great name for a librarian) agrees to do some research for him even though he admitted to "holding onto some material a little longer than [he] should have"
In a few places Simon makes use of the Dewey Decimal system as a way of identifying things, even going so far as to call it a language. And I loved the way he described his librarian girlfriend as using "library-perfect silent diction" when mouthing a question she didn't want overheard.
Libraries as sanctuaries is a common theme we see in library-related books. In this one it is quite literally so. Simon, his sister, and her tattooed boyfriend escape to the library and take refuge in the whaling archive when their home begins to crumble around them.
Libraries really do save lives.