I don’t usually do book reviews (bad librarian) because if I don’t like a book, I don’t finish it, while if I LOVE a book, I find it difficult to be snarky. Snark-less is not a status I’m particularly comfortable with; however, I’m willing to power through it so I can tell you how much I love love LOVE Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels. (But please note that since this is Leslie Parry’s first novel, I’m basically obligated to despise her at least a little bit.)
Just last month you could have quoted me as saying “The novel is dead” (you can seriously start throwing rocks at me any time and I won’t blame you at all; I got a huge eye roll from my mom for those words of wisdom). I need novels to be engaging, the characters believable, and the prose beautiful. I’m not opposed to genre fiction, but soooooooooooo much of it seems to be writers plugging different names into the same plot (this conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro is the most perfect article about genre I’ve ever read: http://www.newstatesman.com/2015/05/neil-gaiman-kazuo-ishiguro-interview-literature-genre-machines-can-toil-they-can-t-imagine). Anyway, my point is, I’m looking for a long-term commitment with a novel. I want to think about it for a long time after I’ve read it, what it means, which were my favorite parts. This book? Check, check, and check.
I’m going to avoid spoilers as much as possible, so I’ll keep plot details brief. There are three intersecting stories: that of Odile, a former carny trying to find her twin sister after losing almost everything in a fire; Sylvan, a night-soiler searching for the origins of a baby he finds while shoveling shit (really); and Alphie, a woman locked in an asylum because of her overbearing Italian mother-in-law. The only complaint I have with these three characters is that Sylvan is at times way too nice/likeable to be believed, but maybe that’s just my cynicism speaking.
The secondary characters are excellent. I DARE you to tell me you wouldn’t be terrified if you met the Signora in a dark alley. Though she is dead before the book begins, the mother of Odile and her sister Belle, Friendship Willingbird Church, is in the running for biggest badass in literature (also best name). Case in point:
“My mother was fearsome and beautiful, the impresario of the sideshow; she brought me and my sister up on sawdust, greasepaint, and applause. Her name—known throughout the music halls and traveling tent shows of America—was Friendship Willingbird Church. She was born to a clan of miners in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but ran away from home when her older brother was killed at Antietam. She cut off her hair, joined the infantry, and saw her first battle at the age of fourteen. In the tent at night, she buried her face in the gunnysack pillow and wept bitterly thinking of him, hungry for revenge.”
There are more plot twists than you can shake a stick at. This is basically the modern, feminist version of Dickens; I kept thinking of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, though that’s not really a perfect comparison. One of the characters collects teeth. TEETH. That’s straight-up a page out of Miss Havisham’s book. At a certain point, you’ll get to a major plot twist and everything will make so much more sense. There were several plot twists which made me re-read the paragraph multiple times because I was thinking, “Fuck, does that mean what I think it means? Wait, really? How did I miss that???”
Most of the novel takes place in the seedy underbelly of turn-of-the-century NYC (thank CHRIST b/c I’m really tired of hearing about rich people, Downton Abbey), but all of it is described with completely lovely prose. There is a brothel located at the end of a giant whale skeleton. And consider how beautiful this description of tigers being burned ALIVE is:
“The tigers were the first living things she saw. They were galloping down toward the shore, their great legs springing through the sand, cloaks of flame rising from their backs. She waited for them to howl, but they were silent. She didn’t even hear the sound of waves breaking over their bodies as they thrashed blindly into the sea.”
It’s seriously been AT LEAST a year since I’ve read a book I liked this much, the last one I can recall being Octavia Butler’s Kindred (don’t talk to me about Fledgling, though). There’s some fantastic exploration of identity and disguises and healing. But you don’t have to take my word for it…because this novel speaks for itself:
“His early life, he thought, was like the slow flip of photographs: the images were too sparse and sporadic to make any sense together, but each was so vivid that whenever one flickered to his mind, he was startled by its intensity. How could certain visions like these remain so luminous, and yet he had no recollection at all of what had come before or after?”
Please read this book so I can freak out (further) about it.