Title: Church of Marvels
Author: Leslie Parry
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: 12th May 2015
Rating: 4/5 stars
A ravishing first novel set in the vibrant, tumultuous underworld of late-19th-century New York, about four young outsiders whose lives become entwined over the course of one fateful night.
New York, 1895. It’s late on a warm city night when Sylvan Threadgill, a young night soiler who cleans out the privies behind the tenement houses, pulls a terrible secret out from the filthy hollows: an abandoned newborn baby. An orphan himself, Sylvan was raised by a kindly Italian family and can’t bring himself to leave the baby in the slop. He tucks her into his chest, resolving to find out where she belongs.
Odile Church is the girl-on-the-wheel, a second-fiddle act in a show that has long since lost its magic. Odile and her sister Belle were raised in the curtained halls of their mother’s spectacular Coney Island sideshow:The Church of Marvels. Belle was always the star-the sword swallower-light, nimble, a true human marvel. But now the sideshow has burnt to the ground, their mother dead in the ashes, and Belle has escaped to the city.
Alphie wakes up groggy and confused in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum. The last thing she remembers is a dark stain on the floor, her mother-in-law screaming. She had once walked the streets as an escort and a penny-Rembrandt, cleaning up men after their drunken brawls. Now she is married; a lady in a reputable home. She is sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband’s vile mother. But then a young woman is committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors from the depths of her agile throat, Alphie knows she harbours a dangerous secret that will alter the course of both of their lives…
On a single night, these strangers’ lives will become irrevocably entwined, as secrets come to light and outsiders struggle for acceptance. From the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular sideshow to a desolate asylum, Leslie Parry makes turn-of-the-century New York feel alive, vivid, and magical in this luminous debut. In prose as magnetic and lucid as it is detailed, she offers a richly atmospheric vision of the past marked by astonishing feats of narrative that will leave you breathless.
The Night Circus meets Water for Elephants meets Crimson Petal and the White in this compulsively readable debut.
While this book wasn’t quite as good as The Night Circus (though I am not sure anything can really live up to that demand), it is nonetheless a beautifully written, compelling story.
The characters are endearing and the story raises intriguing questions about difference – Odile and Belle grew up in a circus, surrounded by interested people – a girl with four legs, a man who was also half-woman. In this way, they remain open to new people and give readers a reminder that more lies beneath the surface of appearance.
I was disappointed that there were not more scenes about Sylvan Threadgill – he was lovely! A foreigner, avoided by others because of his dark, shaggy appearance, he has a good heart and is determined to give the baby he finds in the privies a proper chance at life.
Odile is determined to find her sister, and stumbles upon a mystery. It appears that Belle had more than her share of secrets when she left Coney Island. Mrs Bloodworth, who holds the key to some of those secrets, is a fascinating character – at first she is a villain, but her development, through Odile’s eyes, is fantastic. An impelling part of the New York underground is glimpsed through Mrs Bloodworth and her work.
There are also interesting questions raised about the life of transgender people during this period. I can’t reveal too much without giving away part of the story – a storyline which is better because of the mystery! While I am sure there are problems with the representation given, it is good that Parry has given transgender people some sort of representation in her narrative.
In Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum, we see Alphie dealing with the harsh realities women were subjected to during this period. It is poignant remembering that these institutions did exist and were often used as a place to dispose of women no one wanted anymore. Alphie has been dispatched there because she was a nuisance to her mother-in-law.
The book is absolutely beautiful, with a mystery that propels you along, desperate to know more, to uncover the links between all these characters. The few clues Belle has left about her whereabouts lead Odile on a hunt through the city, and she becomes increasingly concerned as she discovers more about what her sister must have been going through. A great book, and highly recommended – the characters and the compelling mystery are fantastic!