As you know on Friday I bring you new books and/or guest authors. Today I bring you a book by a well-known writer although I hadn’t read any of her books yet. I’ve read and reviewed this extraordinary book, but it got me thinking, so this is a bit more than ‘just’ a book review. It’s one of those topics one can’t stop thinking about.
But first, let me tell you about the novel (sort of).
Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch.
The dazzling new novel, evoking the strange and thrilling world of the Victorian carnival, from the Man Booker-shortlisted author of Jamrach’s Menagerie
A life in the spotlight will keep anyone hidden
Julia Pastrana is the singing and dancing marvel from Mexico, heralded on tours across nineteenth-century Europe as much for her talent as for her rather unusual appearance. Yet few can see past the thick hair that covers her: she is both the fascinating toast of a Governor’s ball and the shunned, revolting, unnatural beast, to be hidden from children and pregnant women.
But what is her wonderful and terrible link to Rose, collector of lost treasures in an attic room in modern-day south London? In this haunting tale of identity, love and independence, these two lives will connect in unforgettable ways.
‘Orphans of the Carnival is a rich and wonderful book. Carol Birch can see a world in a grain of sand – and then furnish it for you, vividly and unforgettably.’ M.R. CAREY, author of The Girl With All the Gifts
‘In this dazzling novel Carol Birch paints an extraordinary portrait of an extraordinary woman. Orphans of the Carnival encourages us to wonder what is revealed by the way a society treats those people who are unusual, who look different or who have their own unique view of the world.’ CATHERINE CHANTER, author of The Well
Praise for Jamrach’s Menagerie:
‘An imaginative tour-de-force encompassing the sights and smells of 19th-century London and the wild sea . . . Gripping, superbly written and a delight – The Times
Riveting. Birch is masterful at evoking period and place . . . A teeming exhibition of the beautiful and the bizarre – Sunday Times
One of the best stories I’ve ever read . . . A completely original book – A. S. Byatt
Here my review:
Thanks to NetGalley and to Canongate book for providing me with a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
Although I’ve never been to a circus I’ve always been interested in stories, books, films and artworks about the circus. And I’ve never forgotten the movie Freaks (1932) directed by Tod Browning, that is as beautiful and touching as it is horrifying (not because of the ‘freaks’ of the story, but because of the way they were exhibited and exploited) , since I first saw it many years back. Human beings have always been fascinated by the unknown and by those who are similar but different to us (not only from a different country and race, but sometimes truly different, something that Freud tried to explain when he defined the ‘uncanny’ as something that is familiar and strange at once and can cause attraction and repulsion at the same time.
This is the first novel by Carol Birch that I read, and although I was interested in her literary career, what made me pick it up was the subject matter. The author writes about Julia Pastrana, a woman born in Mexico in 1834 with two severe genetic malformations that resulted in her body being covered in hair and in her having a protruding mouth and lips with two rows of teeth. There circulated strange stories about her origin (still available nowadays), and she was spotted in a Mexican house by somebody in showbiz and ended up in the circus and carnival circuits, first in the US and then throughout most of Europe. The novel tells her re-imagined story, although, as the writer explains at the end, she used the basic known facts of her life as scaffolding that allowed her to fill in the gaps and create a fictionalised account of her short but intense life.
Julia’s story is interspersed in the novel with some chapters about Rose, a woman of our time (or thereabouts) who lives in a small apartment in London and who is could be defined as a hoarder. But more than a hoarder, she seems to feel an affinity for the objects she finds, no matter how broken and tatty, as if their stories called to her and she feels she has to rescue them and give them a home. When she finds a strange and half-destroyed doll at the beginning of the novel we don’t know yet what the link with Julia is. We don’t find that out until the very end (or close enough, although I missed one of the clues, so intent I was on following Julia’s story at that point) and it’s sad but somehow it offers a sense of closure. The mention of the island of the Dolls that also exist in reality adds another layer of strangeness and creepiness (or enchantment, it depends on one’s point of view) to the story.
The book is written in the third person from the various main characters’ points of view. The historical account is mostly from Julia’s point of view (and giving her a voice, after so many years of being the object of the gaze is a great decision), although later when she meets Lent the points of view alternate between the two and I feel that the author makes a good job of trying to get into the mind of her husband, a man difficult to empathise with or understand, especially from a modern point of view (although I’m sure people at the time wouldn’t have been comfortable with his behaviour either, at least the most enlightened ones). Rose’s chapters, although far less numerous, are told from her point of view and later from Adams’s, a neighbour, friend and lover. The novel is beautifully written; it does not only manage to create a sense of place and of the historical period, but it also succeeds at building up a psychologically consistent portrayal of both Julia and her husband. I felt there was far less detail about the contemporary parts of the story and although I did appreciate the eventual confluence of plots (so to speak, but I’ll avoid giving away any spoilers), I’m not sure that the two parts fit perfectly well, enhance each other rather than distract from one another, or that we get to know or understand the contemporary characters other than superficially. To be fair to the author, I can’t imagine many fictional stories that could compete with Julia’s real life (and afterlife).
This is a book where those who are deemed less than human run rings around the self-professed echelons of society, and I’m sure I’ll keep thinking about this story that touches on colonialism, misogyny, exploitation, issues of race, disability, diversity… Yes, I felt compelled to check the story of Julia Pastrana and other than some discrepancy about the date of her marriage, the novel is accurate regarding the facts, proving the adage that reality is stranger than fiction. And history for sure.
This is a book that will interest people who enjoy Victoriana and historical fiction of the era, and anybody who likes to read a well-written novel with great characters. It is a sad story (and I cried more than once) but it deserves to be told and read. Perhaps we don’t have carnivals or shows of the style described in the book any longer, but we shouldn’t be complacent because we are not as enlightened as we might like to think. A fascinating novel about a fascinating human being and the society of her time.
As I said at the beginning, the story of Julia Pastrana fascinated me and I found quite a few articles talking about her, some in more detail than others. If you’re not familiar with the kind of images and pamphlets around these shows you might be surprised at the objectification and descriptions, but see what you think.
Links about Julia Pastrana:
It made me think about how museums sometimes contained (I hope no longer do) actual embalmed human beings of faraway lands that were considered educational displays. This is a particularly strange example (and yes, although I don’t think I ever saw him, I visited Banyoles quite a few times).
A link to the Isla de las muñecas (Island of the Dolls) in Mexico, that’s also mentioned in the novel:
And as I mentioned Freaks in the review, I thought I’d leave you a trailer, in case you’ve never watched it.
Thanks so much to NetGalley, the publishers and the author for the novel, and for bringing to my attention Julia Pastrana (I’m pleased she’s finally back home), thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, like, share, comment, and CLICK!