Church of Marvels: A Novel, by Leslie Parry, (Ecco), 320 pages, release date 5 May, 2015
My enthusiasm for Church of Marvels is pretty much unbridled. Set in turn-of-the-century Coney Island and Manhattan, it offers an eclectic cast of characters. There are twin sisters, Isabelle and Odille, whose mother, Friendship Church, runs the entertainment palace of the title. Isabelle is a contortionist and sword swallower. Odille, partially crippled, is the woman on the wheel at whom knives are thrown. There’s Alphie, who worked as a child prostitute before setting up her own business as a “Rembrandt”: making up wealthy men who have been slumming by the docks before they return home. She awakes one day to find herself trapped in a madhouse due to the machinations of her mother-in-law. Finally, there’s Dog Boy, an orphan who makes his living mucking out privies by night and who occasionally earns a bit more as a fighter in barroom bouts.
When Dog Boy discovers a still-living baby in one of the privies he cleans, the stories of these four characters gradually pull closer and closer together, building unexpected relationships. Following these characters as they fight to make a way for themselves in the world is engrossing reading. The novel is made even more engaging by a broad cast of secondary characters, all of them interesting in their own rights.
I said I have “pretty much” unbridled enthusiasm for this novel. My one area of ambivalence is the violence that some of these characters face. It’s appropriate to the time and narrative, but still painful to read. Nonetheless, Parry offers each of them a dignity that violence cannot diminish.
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