Glittering Impossible Beauty: A Gavriel Savit Book Review

by - April 11, 2023

According to author Gavriel Savit, there are two types of readers: those that read while sitting in the stands of a baseball game, and those who read while standing in the outfield of a baseball game.

Guess which one he was.

His childhood involved any fantasy or science fiction-themed book he could get his hands on, including the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series that he brought to his little league game.

He took that connection for storytelling with him all the way from Michigan to New York as he pursued musical theater. In between his time working on- and off-Broadway, there were periods where he spent several hours a day in the basement of a Mexican restaurant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Placing delivery orders proved to be incredibly tedious, and in order to keep his sanity he began putting together what he planned to be a solo performance piece.

The piece became more complicated than he initially thought, and required him to write a fake memoir set in the second world war. It blended realism with enchantment, and when Savit showed it to his then-girlfriend now-wife, she said, “I think you accidentally wrote a novel.”

That accidental novel became Anna and the Swallow Man, released in 2016, followed by The Way Back in 2020. His latest novel, Come See the Fair, continues to blend realism with enchantment, this time based around the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

He admits that anyone who writes about this time in Chicago’s history automatically is in the shadow of the 2003 Erik Larson book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. However, it was part of the inspiration behind Savit’s interpretation.

“I’m deeply indebted to that book because one of the things that it demonstrates very well is the double sidedness of the fair; the bright, sparking top side and the dark, grimy bottom side,” he said.

Savit was also inspired by the 1890s-built Illinois home he was living in when he wrote Come See the Fair. The idea constantly felt like it was sitting on his shoulder, but it was a local fundraiser that became the first moment he knew he had to write the book. A local cultural institution brought in a medium to contact the spirit of the house, which Savit found to be both very unconvincing and remarkably effective.

“It was really striking to me because he kept on giving the same messages to people,” he said. “But it was still super effective. When he started to feel things out, everyone in the room would lean forward. I was really struck by that combination of clear truth and clear falsehood and a moment of reaching for transcendence.”

This inspired the main character of Come See the Fair, Eva Root. The 12-year-old orphan is a traveling spiritualist medium who knows from the jump that mediums aren’t real. When she witnesses something that seems real, she is compelled to figure out what is going on and how she fits into it all.

While the book contains fantastical ideas, the real history of Chicago flows through each page. From the World’s Columbian Exposition to the Great Chicago Fire to the spiritualist movement, Savit was as historically accurate as possible.

“One of the great things about fantasy fiction is that the great pieces of fantasy are always tied to the reflections of place,” Savit said. “I think there’s been a strange reluctance to explore the connection between magic and place in American fantasy, maybe because we all bring our own brand of magic from wherever we came from, but it turns out everyone’s been moving around for a long time. I was just really excited for the possibility of exploring place and history and fantasy, which are all the things that I love.”

Although essentially everything built for the World’s Columbian Exposition is long gone, minus the Museum of Science and Industry, the birth and death of the fair can still be felt in Jackson Park. The 551-acre park, located on the South Side, is still very much in the shape of the fair. Savit describes it as if hanging out with a ghost.

This “magical murder mystery history tour” is dedicated to “anyone who has ever been Burned”. Savit doesn’t provide easy answers in his writing, but instead does his best to raise hard questions for readers.

“It’s really a book about the price of glittering impossible beauty and what you do when you realize that price, and whether or not you can hold onto the beauty without paying the very darkest price.”

Come See the Fair is available here.

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