New York, 1895. It’s late on a warm city night when Sylvan Threadgill, a young night soiler who cleans out the privies behind the tenement houses, pulls a terrible secret out from the filthy hollows: an abandoned newborn baby. An orphan himself, Sylvan was raised by a kindly Italian family and can’t bring himself to leave the baby in the slop. He tucks her into his chest, resolving to find out where she belongs.
Odile Church is the girl-on-the-wheel, a second-fiddle act in a show that has long since lost its magic. Odile and her sister Belle were raised in the curtained halls of their mother’s spectacular Coney Island sideshow: The Church of Marvels. Belle was always the star-the sword swallower-light, nimble, a true human marvel. But now the sideshow has burnt to the ground, their mother dead in the ashes, and Belle has escaped to the city.
Alphie wakes up groggy and confused in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum. The last thing she remembers is a dark stain on the floor, her mother-in-law screaming. She had once walked the streets as an escort and a penny-Rembrandt, cleaning up men after their drunken brawls. Now she is married; a lady in a reputable home. She is sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband’s vile mother. But then a young woman is committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors from the depths of her agile throat, Alphie knows she harbors a dangerous secret that will alter the course of both of their lives…
On a single night, these strangers’ lives will become irrevocably entwined, as secrets come to light and outsiders struggle for acceptance. From the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular sideshow to a desolate asylum, Leslie Parry makes turn-of-the-century New York feel alive, vivid, and magical in this luminous debut. In prose as magnetic and lucid as it is detailed, she offers a richly atmospheric vision of the past marked by astonishing feats of narrative that will leave you breathless.
I’d like to thank the lovely people over at BookBridgr for sending me a review copy of Church of Marvels.
Ok, firstly let me say that I love literature set in the Victorian period. I also love books set in New York. Equally, I love books that have a quirky setting like a circus. Unfortunately, I did not find myself loving Church of Marvels. I liked it but I couldn’t say that it was a book that drew a huge emotional response from me.
At times I felt that the description was so heavy that it bogged you down. Perry tells you how everything is that you didn’t really have space to paint a mental picture yourself. However, she did create a dramatic sense of atmosphere and that isn’t easy to do. I can honestly say that I did feel like I was in the darkened underbelly of New York.
The story is made up of three narrative threads: Alphie, Sylvan and Odile. Odile is on the search for her twin sister who has gone missing; Sylvan has found an abandoned baby and he sets out to figure out who the mother is thus putting himself at great risk an Alphie has been taken to an asylum and cannot figure out how to escape. The three story threads are all interesting and they do all link together, however, it takes a long time for this to happen and makes the story feel like a bit of a slow burner. You find yourself trudging through the text rather than racing through the pages.
One thing that is exceptional about Church of Marvels is Parry’s haunting and atmospheric description of the asylum. It is evocative and I personally found it quite terrifying. Praise has to be given for the sheer terror that she instilled in me.
Whilst Church of Marvels does have a slow start, once the story develops it does get much better. It is mindblowingly so. Parry is a master of the plot twist shock and reveal. If you like a book to completely knock you off your feet then you should definitely give Church of Marvels a read.
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry is available now.