All great shows, she told me when I was little (and still learning to flex the tiny muscles in my esophagus), depend on the most ordinary objects. We can be a weary, cynical lot—we grow old and see only what suits us, and what is marvelous can often pass us by. A kitchen knife. A bulb of glass. A human body. That something so common should be so surprising—why, we forget it. We take it for granted. We assume that our sight is reliable, that our deeds are straightforward, that our words have one meaning. But life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns. So onstage we remind them just how extraordinary the ordinary can be. This, she said is the tiger in the grass. It’s the wonder that hides in plain sight, the secret life that flourishes just beyond the screen. For you are not showing them a hoax or trick, just a new way of seeing what’s already in front of them.
Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up. The show is about to begin. See the four-legged dancer, the half-man-half-woman. See the wheel of death, where knives fly toward a spinning lass. See the sword swallower (no, not that sort, puh-leez) and watch as one of our performers eats actual glass. But you had better be quick. This Coney Island sideshow, the Church of Marvels is about to burn to the ground.
“1996.164.5-10 bw SL1” by H.S. Lewis – Brooklyn Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons – Remnants of a 1903 fire at Coney Island.
Sylvan Threadgill is 19 years old and living on his own in the bowels of end-of-the-19th century New York City. He earns a meager living as a night-soiler, cleaning up the remains of the day, and picks up some extra cash as a boxer. It is while at the former job that he comes across an unusual discard. Sylvan is a (mostly) good-hearted sort, and he takes the baby in, intending to find it’s mother.
Odile Church, the spinning girl on the Wheel of Death, having lost so much, including her mother, worries about what became of her twin, Isabelle, the star of the Church of Marvels. Belle had vanished before the fire. Odile sets off to the never-seen far away land of Manhattan on a quest to find Belle, following a single clue.
Alphie, a “Penny Rembrandt,” and sometime sex-worker, is in love, having been swept off her feet by an undertaker. His old-world Italian mother does not approve, but he marries Alphie anyway, making for a very tense household. Alphie suddenly finds herself a virtual prisoner in Blackwell’s asylum on what is now Roosevelt Island. It is a lovely place, specializing in order over humanity, with generous doses of cruelty tossed in. Charles Dickens actually visited the real Blackwell’s in the 1840s and did not have anything good to say about it. Alphie encounters another prisoner (who never speaks) with unique skills and they plot their escape. Sylvan pursues the truth about the found infant, as Odile tries her best to track down her sister. Truths are discovered, both wonderful and horrifying and all converge to a thrilling climax.
Leslie Parry has written some wonderful characters, people you will most definitely care about, and she has placed them in a marvelous setting.
The New York City of 1899 must have been a particularly bleak place for those at the lower end of things. But it is a marvelous place to read about. Parry has painted a colorful portrait of the time, offering chilling images of the era. She has a Dickensian penchant for naming her characters. A noseless street urchin is Sniff. A servant girl is Mouse. A nightsoil foreman is Mr. Everjohn. Another night-soiler is No Bones. A “widow” working in a bordello is Pigeon. There is much here about seeing what is in plain sight, but it is also clear that the author has done considerable digging to bring to light things that were hidden, or at least only slightly known. Opium dens among other things. The treatment of asylum inmates is as appalling as one might expect. The profession of night-soiler was news to me, as was the presence of a civil-war era floating ship hospital. You will enjoy learning of the professions of penny Rembrandt and JennySweeter, and of the significance of a north star symbol on the facades of local businesses.
There are sundry images that permeate the story. Tigers figure large for the girls, from the quilt their mother made for them as kids, to carnival tigers grooming Odile, to a literal take on Blake, to a notion of the secret in plain sight being a “tiger in the grass.” Church references extend beyond the family and family business name. A floating “church” serves as a venue for boxing matches, complete with a preacher and prayer cards. A sense of divinity is summoned on occasion as well. You might keep an eye out for crescents. Parry offers some passages on passages that certainly remind one of birthing and a sort of Campbellian descent.
…for a moment Sylvan had the dreamy sensation that he was swimming through the vein of a body, toward a lush, warming heart. Ahead of him the man was lumbering and stout, so large he had to duck beneath the doorframes, but he moved quickly, almost gracefully. The passage seemed to turn and fold back on itself, and then it came to an end. The man pulled aside a blue curtain and beckoned Sylvan inside.
One consistent concern is being seen for who one is, being appreciated, or at least, being accepted.
To be seen but not known was perhaps the loneliest feeling of all.
While I adore this book, I do have some gripes. There are enough orphans here to cast a production of Pirates of Penzance. While lost or missing parents may have been a much more common thing in 1899 than it is today, it seemed to me that the rope being used to lower the bucket to this well was getting a bit frayed. Mickey Finn is put to considerable use as well. There are two concerns that are heavily spoilerish, so I urge you to pass these by if you have not already read the book. RED means spoiler. Ok, you have been issued fair warning. We are to believe that Isabelle was de-tongued by one person. But how might that have been possible? Did Belle’s assailant grow extra arms? One set for holding Belle down, another for wielding both tongs and knife, and a third set for holding Belle’s mouth open? Nope. Did not buy that one. Also, we are to believe that Siamese twins, joined at the head, were successfully separated by a non-doctor in the 19th century? I doan theen so.
Church of Marvels offers a richly colorful landscape, although the hues tend to the dark end of the spectrum. The story is riveting and moving. The main characters are very interesting and mostly sympathetic. And there are enough twists to keep a contortionist bent out of shape. The image that Parry conjures of the time is richly detailed enough without being overwhelming, and the whole is presented with a warmth and charm that reminded me of The Golem and the Jinni. No, there is not the literal magical element of that other book, but both look at a historical New York and their characters with warmth and charm. In this case, presenting early New York as a kind of sideshow in and of itself.
I am not a regular attendee at any church, but I can heartily recommend Leslie Parry’s debut novel. This church is both unforgettable and marvelous.
Publication date – May 5, 2015
Review posted – 1/30/15
Links to the author’s personal, Facebook and Twitter pages
A 5 minute sample of the audio version, read by Denice Stradling
Flashback: When Roosevelt Island Was Blackwell’s Island
Ten Days in a Madhouse, by Bill De Main – about Nellie Bly’s 1887 undercover commitment to Blackwell’s
Some of Bly’s report is available here
Some of Bly’s report is available here
An intro to Nelly Bly on PBS