Church of Marvels, published in 2015, is Leslie Parry’s first and, so far, her only novel but I enjoyed it so much I hope she will be writing more. It’s a dark, complex and unusual story set in New York City in 1895 and, despite comparisons with The Night Circus, I think it’s a very different sort of book.
There are three main characters to get to know. First there’s Sylvan Threadgill, a ‘night-soil collector’ who makes his living from cleaning privies, as well as fighting in the occasional amateur boxing match. One night, Sylvan finds a newborn baby girl who has been abandoned and left to lie in the dirt of the street. He rescues the baby and, as an orphan himself, resolves to find out what has happened to her parents.
Next, there’s Odile Church, who performs in a Coney Island sideshow as the girl on the wheel of death – spinning in circles as a blindfolded man throws knives in her direction. Odile is trying to come to terms with the tragic death of her mother in a fire and the disappearance of her twin sister Belle, a sword-swallower and contortionist, who has run away to Manhattan with no explanation. Worried about her sister’s state of mind, Odile decides it’s time to go and look for her.
Finally, we meet Alphie, an undertaker’s wife, who has found herself imprisoned in Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum. She can’t remember how she came to be there, but she’s sure it’s part of a plot dreamed up by her mother-in-law who has never liked her and wants her out of her son’s life.
At first these felt like three completely separate storylines and I couldn’t see how they could be connected in any way. Of course they do eventually come together and then I could appreciate how cleverly structured the whole novel is, with things being revealed only when we really need to know them and the biggest plot twists kept until near the end of the book. For this reason, I can’t discuss some of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, but I will say that there is a lot going on and that there is much more to each of the characters above than meets the eye!
The circus element, which is probably one of the things that draws a lot of readers to this novel, is actually a fairly small part of the story and only a few scenes are set at Coney Island. Most of the action takes place in New York and, more specifically, in the dark side of New York, a world of asylums, opium dens and underground tunnels. The people who populate these dark and unpleasant places are those who are considered to be social outcasts; misfits; men, women and children who are ‘different’ in some way. Odile, Belle, Sylvan and Alphie all fit into this category and I had a lot of sympathy for each of them – life has not been easy for them and all they want is to have a chance of happiness.
Although it is certainly not the most cheerful or uplifting of novels, I found Church of Marvels a fascinating read and, as I’ve said, I would love to read more by Leslie Parry.