Amid the city’s grimy waterfronts, opium dens, and other lowlife regions, four impoverished misfits pursue separate missions. The discovery of a newborn baby in the privies outside a tenement prompts Sylvan Threadgill to locate the child’s mother, while Odile Church leaves Coney Island to find her sister, Belle, her sideshow partner before fire killed their courageous mother and destroyed their circus. Lastly, young Alphie waits for her undertaker husband to rescue her from an asylum. Their stories twine together in ways that feel surprising when first encountered but were actually carefully planted from the start.
Emphasizing the plight of women, orphans, and society’s nonconforming outcasts, the setting is superbly showcased, with its medley of sights and smells both wretched and wondrous. Especially recommended for admirers of atmospheric nineteenth-century historicals like Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music (2014).
Church of Marvels will be published on May 5th by Ecco (hb, $26.99, 320pp) and in June by Two Roads in the UK (hb, £16.99). This review first appeared in Booklist's April 15th issue, which has a special focus on historical fiction.
I've mentioned here before that I'm not usually drawn to novels dealing with circuses, fairs, magicians, etc.. Growing up hearing grisly tales of the Hartford Circus Fire (1944) and with a fear of clowns had that effect on me. However, after reading and reviewing a few of these books and enjoying them very much, it may be time to revise my opinions. Or at least make exceptions!