It’s been more than five years since I read Carol Birch’s excellent Jamrach’s Menagerie, an adventure novel set in the Victorian period; I had intended to go back and explore her earlier books, but that never happened, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read her new one, Orphans of the Carnival. It’s a very different book from Jamrach, but just as fascinating in its own way.
Orphans of the Carnival is the story of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican woman born in 1834 with a rare genetic condition, hypertrichosis terminalis, which has resulted in her face and body being covered in thick black hair. In addition to this, Julia also has a jutting jaw and thick gums and lips, caused by another condition called gingival hyperplasia. Julia is an intelligent, talented woman – as well as speaking three languages, she sings and dances well enough to build a career for herself in the circuses and theatres of 19th century America and Europe. However, she knows that the crowds who come to watch are not really interested in her musical ability; they just want to marvel at her unusual looks.
Interspersed with Julia’s story is the story of another woman, this time one who lives in London in the 1980s. Her name is Rose and she’s a hoarder – she hoards useless items she finds in the street, things that other people have thrown away. Near the beginning of the novel, she brings home an old, discarded doll which she names Tattoo; the doll provides a link between Julia and Rose, but we won’t find out exactly what the connection is until we reach the end of the book.
This is an unusual and moving novel based on the life of a real person. Yes, Julia Pastrana really existed and you can easily find pictures and information about her online. Although I didn’t know anything about Julia before I read this book, it seems that Carol Birch has followed the known historical facts as far as possible while using her imagination to fill in the gaps. The novel is written in the third person but mainly from Julia’s perspective and by the end I felt that I knew her well.
Julia is a gentle and sensitive woman, and also quite an innocent and vulnerable one, largely because she has spent so much time sheltered from the outside world, living with friends and colleagues from the circus and carnival circuit and hiding her face behind a veil when she does venture out in public. I had a lot of sympathy for Julia; I’m sure there would be medical treatment and support available for someone born with her conditions today, but in the 1800s there was nothing that could be done. I felt bad for her when she reads a review of one of her performances describing her not just as ugly (which she was prepared to accept) but also as ‘an insult to decency’ – and again when her show is closed down on advice from a doctor who claims that the sight of her face could be harmful to pregnant women.
Eventually, Julia meets Theodore Lent, the man who is to become both her manager and her husband. I found it hard to tell what Theo really thought about Julia. He does seem to have some affection for her, but he also appears to be much more interested in the money to be made than he is in Julia as a person. It’s so sad when Julia, who just wants a husband who loves her, says to Theo: “It’s not love though, is it? Not like it is with other people. Real humans.”
Julia’s story is interesting and compelling, but I don’t think the 1980s sections add very much – in fact, they are just a distraction. The characters aren’t developed in anywhere near as much depth as the historical ones and although I did appreciate the eventual shocking revelation which links the two storylines together, I didn’t feel that it was really necessary.
This isn’t a perfect book, then, and it’s also not one that I can say I ‘enjoyed’ as I found it quite uncomfortable to read (not because of what Julia looks like, but because of the way other people treat her and respond to her). It’s certainly worth reading, though, and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to learn a little bit about the life of Julia Pastrana.
Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a review copy via NetGalley.