Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

orphans-of-the-carnival 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-pastrana 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.

My Commonplace Book: September 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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york-minster

Another high wall appeared ahead of us; York seemed a city of walls. Behind it the Minster loomed. Ahead was a large open space crowded with market stalls under brightly striped awnings that flapped in the cool damp breeze. Heavy-skirted goodwives argued with stallholders while artisans in the bright livery of their guilds looked down their noses at the stalls’ contents, and dogs and ragged children dived for scraps. I saw most of the people had patched clothes and worn-looking clogs. Watchmen in livery bearing the city arms stood about, observing the crowds.

Sovereign by CJ Sansom (2006)

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But whereas the planets are serene in their separateness, knowing any collision with one another likely to destroy them and return them to dust, Fogg remarks that he, along with very many of his race, finds his Separateness the most entirely sad fact of his existence and is every moment hopeful of colliding with someone who will obscure it from his mind.

Restoration by Rose Tremain (1989)

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elizabeth-of-york

“Do you like history?” he enquired.

“Oh, yes.” She turned eagerly to him, forgetting momentarily the splendour of the pageant. “It is about people, you see. The deeds they performed. The way they thought.”

Elizabeth the Beloved by Maureen Peters (1972)

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Writing is a kind of magic. One person sits in a room alone and makes marks on a page that represent the images in her mind. Another person looks at those marks, weeks or months or a hundred years later, and similar images appear in that person’s mind. Magic. Plays and choreography hold yet another level of magic and meaning: the marks on the page leap to action in another person’s body, to be seen by thousands of others. The ability to weave that kind of magic paid well in Las Vegas.

The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan (2014)

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He was a good husband. He had comforted her when she’d sobbed violently against his plump chest, then rested dry-eyed against it and tried not to remember all the things she no longer knew about her son. How tall was he now? Had the colour of his hair changed? Did he still wake sometimes in the middle of the night unable to breathe? Did he still like to find beetles in the cracks in a stone wall, or to look for hidden things beneath a rock?
Did he remember her at all?

Rebellion by Livi Michael (2015)

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king-david

But the stories that grow up around a king are strong vines with a fierce grip. They pull life from whatever surfaces they cling to, while the roots, maybe, wither and rot until you cannot find the place from which the seed of the vine has truly sprung.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2015)

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Three telephones kept ringing like demented things, and by post, telegram, wireless, and personal appearance the information poured in. Nine-tenths of it quite useless, but all of it requiring a hearing: some of it requiring much investigation before its uselessness became apparent. Grant looked at the massed pile of reports, and his self-control deserted him for a little.

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey (1936)

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“It is the only thing I know of to his advantage,” Judith said. “I will admit him to be an excellent whip. But for the rest I find him a mere fop, a creature of affectations, tricked out in modish clothes, thinking snuff to be of more moment than events of real importance. He is proud, he can be insolent. There is a reserve, a lack of openness—I must not say any more: I shall put myself in a rage, and that will not do.”

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer (1935)

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courbette

I heard the fanfare and recognised it; it was the entrance of Annalisa and her white stallion. The trumpets cut through the air, silver, clear and commanding. Old Piebald stopped grazing and lifted his head, with his ears cocked as one imagines a war horse might at the smell of battle and the trumpets. Then the music changed, sweet, lilting and golden, as the orchestra stole into the waltz from The Rosenkavalier.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

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In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt; it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love, and that did not belong to them.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)

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“I might be wrong, but I fancy that however much a girl may admire, or envy, the heroine of some romance, who finds herself in the most extraordinary situations; and however much she may picture herself in those situations, she knows it is nothing more than a child’s game of make-believe, and that she would not, in fact, behave at all like her heroine.”

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer (1966)

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nondescript

“You’re not shy, Julia,” he said. “It’s what I noticed first about you. How calmly you faced the world with that stupendous, utterly unnatural face of yours, and of course – you know the spirit in which I say that, it’s merely a stated fact – I knew then you were a natural. No no, there’s no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, but that you’ll thrive.”

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch (2016)

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It happens this way sometimes, we can discover truths about ourselves in a moment, sometimes in the midst of drama, sometimes quietly. A sunset wind can be blowing off the sea, we might be alone in bed on a winter night, or grieving by a grave among leaves. We are drunk at a tavern, dealing with desperate pain, waiting to confront enemies on a battlefield. We are bearing a child, falling in love, reading by candlelight, watching the sun rise, a star set, we are dying…

But there is something else to all of this, because of how the world is for us, how we are within it. Something can be true of our deepest nature and the running tide of days and years might let it reach the shore, be made real there — or not.

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (2016)

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Favourite books read in September: Sovereign, Airs Above the Ground and Black Sheep

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

When young Jaffy Brown comes face to face with an escaped tiger in the streets of London, it leads to him being offered a job with Mr Jamrach, a dealer in wild animals. For the next few years Jaffy works at Jamrach’s menagerie, helping to take care of the animals – until one day he gets the chance to go to sea in search of a very special creature…

This novel, the first I’ve read by Carol Birch, grabbed me from the very first page. It was everything I love in a book: historical fiction set in the Victorian period with a fast-paced plot and quirky, interesting characters. When a few chapters into the novel Jaffy set off on his voyage and it became clear that most of the book was going to take place at sea I was slightly worried as I often find seafaring stories boring – but not this time! I was pleased to find that I enjoyed reading about Jaffy’s adventures on board the Lysander, visiting distant lands and battling against storms, starvation and superstition as much as I enjoyed the chapters set in working-class 19th century London.

From tigers and whales to exotic birds and giant reptiles we encounter a large number of animals, both at Jamrach’s London menagerie and in their natural habitat (and be warned that Birch doesn’t shy away from describing the cruel ways in which these creatures were treated in the 19th century). But more importantly, we learn a lot about human nature, about friendship, love and loyalty. Jaffy, as our narrator, is the character around whom all the others revolve including Ishbel, the girl he loves; Tim, his childhood friend and rival; and Dan Rymer, the older sailor who becomes a father figure to the boys.

Birch’s writing is atmospheric and descriptive, giving the story an almost supernatural, mystical feel at times. And although there were a few occasions where I thought the plot suffered slightly from taking second place to the detailed descriptions, for the most part I found the book completely gripping. A good old-fashioned adventure story and a very enjoyable and entertaining read!