There's a brilliant moment early on in this lyrical memoir, where 30-something Chin is at a stuffy banquet in Massachusetts, failing to hew to conversational expectations (hello, how are you?, what is the weather like?) as a doctor's wife. She mentions to her husband's colleague that she's writing a memoir, and they sniff back, "At your age?" The moment passes, yet Chin thinks, "I could have told him that by the time I was six, I'd known violence the way some kids know bedtime stories."
Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival. One June day, an old book arrives on Simon's doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation.