Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
New York, 1895. Sylvan Threadgill, a night soiler cleaning out the privies behind the tenement houses, finds an abandoned newborn baby in the muck. An orphan himself, Sylvan rescues the child, determined to find where she belongs.
Odile Church and her beautiful sister, Belle, were raised amid the applause and magical pageantry of The Church of Marvels, their mother’s spectacular Coney Island sideshow. But the Church has burnt to the ground, their mother dead in its ashes. Now Belle, the family’s star, has vanished into the bowels of Manhattan, leaving Odile alone and desperate to find her.
A young woman named Alphie awakens to find herself trapped across the river in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum—sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband’s vile, overbearing mother. On the ward she meets another young woman of ethereal beauty who does not speak, a girl with an extraordinary talent that might save them both.
As these strangers’ lives become increasingly connected, their stories and secrets unfold. Moving from the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular human circus to a brutal, terrifying asylum, Church of Marvels takes readers back to turn-of-the-century New York—a city of hardship and dreams, love and loneliness, hope and danger.
It takes a lot for me to pick up a novel I haven't previously heard of, judging only by the cover (for shame) and the blurb. Both of these left me spellbound in a branch of Chapters in Kitchener, so I allowed myself the plunge. Thoughts of a circus sideshow and freak show and an asylum in turn of the century New York had my brain spinning into American Horror Story territory. My excitement was off the charts.
Immediately disappointed, I found I wasn't as taken with the story as I'd initially been convinced of. Parry narrates using the storylines of four different characters, which is confusing and irritating to begin with. There's no clear link between the characters' lives, and the first half of the novel reads like a jumble and bustle of nonsense. I couldn't possibly see how these were going to come together. My downfall here was trying to constantly guess where everything was going, and becoming annoyed with myself when I realised I was wrong. The best way to enjoy this novel is to immerse yourself in Parry's words and descriptions, imagine New York in 1895, and truly understand the glory in her work.
The words were glorious and colourful, flitting from the rainbow brightness of Coney Island, to the browns and greys of the night-time slums. I could smell the streets. The detail and complexity demands an attention I was only more than happy to give, however this isn't a story that can be picked up effortlessly. You're in this for the long haul. Find a quiet few hours to devour the words, and let the strands of these four peoples' lives intertwine in your mind.
Parry's characters were gorgeous, detailed, and hopelessly real. Each of them alone, each of them flawed, and each of them broken in their own ways; I felt for them all. This was a time in which their situations and their actions were disapproved of, all of them were social outcasts in their unique way, and all of them burnt a hole in my heart.
I was excited to read of New York in this era, but it wasn't quite as glamorous as I'd imagined. Prostitution, opium dens, babies for sale, an island asylum, and a guy who mucks out the shit in the privies, all had me hitting the ground with a hard bump when I realised it was a dark New York, akin to Dickensian London, I was being shown. The grim portrayal, however, was gorgeous in its own right.
Despite my original worries, Parry wound this up so tightly. Resolving everything with care, shock tactics, and more twists than a sideshow acrobatic, it's difficult to believe this is a debut novel. Please only pick this up if you're willing to devote the time, devour the words, and decipher the text.