Is it just me, or does the next genre trend seem to be turn-of-the-century historical fiction set in and around side shows, or focusing on characters who make their homes, fame, and fortunes in circuses, carnivals, and the like? The Night Circus was a big hit recently, and I feel like I’ve seen a few such manuscripts come into the submissions box at work (have I mentioned that I’m an editorial assistant at a New York-based independent publisher? I don’t get to read nearly as much as I’d like, but I’m working to shift my duties back to the submission pile).
And when I came across Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels (I think I signed up for a Goodreads giveaway of it a few months ago), I knew I had to read it. I’ve been on quite a circus fiction kick of my own, spanning artistic mediums these last few months. And the story of several distinct people living disparate, yet irrevocably intertwined, lives in 1895 New York City sounded exactly like the kind of book I’d devour. After losing the giveaway I’d entered for it, I placed a large order at Barnes & Noble, including a pre-order of Church of Marvels. Another book in my shopping cart, unfortunately, won’t pub until mid-June, so I’m, unfortunately, still waiting for my new haul.
But the other day at work, our usual UPS guy knocked and brought in a few boxes of mailing envelopes, plus one small package. He dropped the small package on my desk, got my coworker to sign off, then wished us a good day and left. I assumed the package was for one of my colleagues, especially when I saw HarperCollins as the return address. I’ve been out of school just about a year now, and working at my current place of employment a bit less than that; I’m not important enough to get bookish mail at work.
But there was my name, in black and white on a UPS label some intern or assistant at HarperCollins had printed. And when I ripped open the envelope, what should I find buy my very first galley from another publisher–and my very first galley was Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels.
My original assumption was correct–over the course of three fever-fueled days, I devoured Parry’s debut. Late nineteenth century New York comes to life (a cliche, but true) with Parry’s deft hand. She chooses details that summon up the sheen of oil paint and sweat on the Coney Island performers, and the stink of the criminally insane on Blackwell’s Island. Readers can see the shimmer of the Church of Marvels that Friendship Church built for her beloved girls–Odile and Isabelle–and her extended family of collected misfits. But we can also see privy-cleaning and fight-seeking Sylvan Threadgill’s poverty, and the harsh reality of facing the filthy city alone.
I enjoyed the characters immensely. Even with the proliferation of circus fiction–and my own obsession with basically anything related to side shows–Parry found original new details and quirks to create distinct people that have not yet been seen or read about. There are the familiar circus types–the tiger-tamer; the knife-thrower; the “midget”; the extra-limbed woman; the acrobat/contortionist; the person who is both man and woman–but they are wound into the fabric of the Church and into each others’ lives in new and fascinating ways. The Church is all flash, but it’s all real–that’s the number one condition of Friendship’s show, that her “freaks” be legitimate, that her shows be reality, not illusion. There is no “How did they do that?” in the Church. There is only “Where did they come from? How do they live?” And finding all of that out is a pleasure.
But what really drew me into Church of Marvels was the plot. It’s a fairly standard story: twin girls lose mother; one sister leaves; the other uncovers a secret and chases her down. It becomes a fish-out-of-water story for Odile, who has never left Coney Island and now finds herself hunting down her sister Belle in Manhattan. But more to the point, it isn’t so much the story that’s interesting, but how Parry crafts it. Parry’s weaving of the separate stories into a cohesive tale is masterful. Many books will have several points of view or focuses, and then will show off how the stories interconnect. But it’s largely been my experience that the connections are either made too obvious (the work of a heavy-handed author who might be more excited at the prospect of their clever interweaving than having the story unfold organically) or they come out of left field.
You don’t get either with Parry’s book–she is one of the few who has struck that absolutely perfect balance, where you are absolutely given the clues to untangle the relationships between the characters, and yet even if you have an early inkling, you’ll second-guess yourself. And when all is revealed, it feels absolutely that this is where the book was headed all along. (There’s one small exception that felt a bit too “well, of course” for me near the end, but I’ll keep that to myself. Because you should all experience this book on your own time, and that time should be immediately.)
And I don’t regret in the slightest the 20-odd dollars I spent on a hardcover copy of Church of Marvels. When the book finally arrives, I’ll have an excuse to read it again.
To hop on this high-flying trend, I also recommend looking into some of these:
Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn | I wrote on Goodreads only that this book was “twisted, gross, thought-provoking, and incredible.” Geek Love is told from the perspective of Oly, an albino Little Person and the youngest of the Great Binewskis, a family of freaks running a traveling show. As the story progresses, we learn about both Oly’s past and present, the glory she had as part of her family and the small life she leads now, quietly doing radio work and living alone in an old apartment building. We see both the glitz and majesty of the life Oly led, and the darkness that waited backstage–family strife, hardship, and the sickening lengths to which Oly’s parents were willing to go to birth the greatest show on Earth.
“Side Show,” book by Bill Russell & music by Henry Krieger | A cult classic Broadway musical that always seems to close too soon. Set in the 1920s and 30s in America, this show follows the journey of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who made their start as part of their uncle’s “freak show” and eventually became some of the biggest vaudeville stars of their day. The sisters faced invasive questions from the press and public about their love lives, as well as being forced to questions themselves–and each other–about whether or not they wanted to live the rest of their lives together, or if they should risk separation. (Of course, they ultimately choose each other over the hope of “normal” lives, and died within days of each other in North Carolina in 1969, where their last manager had abandoned them nearly a decade earlier.)
Carnivàle, created by Daniel Knauf | If you’ve never watched this show, fix that immediately. This HBO drama follows Ben Hawkins, a boy in the Dust Bowl in 1930s America, as he loses his mother, gets taken in by a traveling circus, grapples with strange visions and powers that have always marked him out as different, and finds himself swept into an epic battle between Heaven and Hell. It also has the guy who voices Spongebob‘s Mr. Krabs as possibly the most terrifying preacher you will ever see on screen.
Carnivàle lasted only two short seasons, though there were plans for more–the show just cost too much to produce and didn’t draw enough of a crowd to warrant the expenditure. Unfortunately, HBO also refuses to give up the rights, so it seems impossible that the show will continue in any format, despite the creator’s interest in a graphic novel continuation. Maybe we can all work together to change that, hm?
(Oh my God, you guys, I’m going to have to write something about Carnivàle one day. This show is genius.)
Have recommendations of a bookish nature for me? I’m always looking for good circus fiction–let me know in the comments!