Church of MarvelsChurch of Marvels by Leslie Parry
My rating: 5/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

put it on a t-shirt – 2015 is officially the year of spectacular carnival/sideshow debut novels by women.

this is a great contrast and companion to the other circussy book i recently read: The Book of Speculation. they are two very different treatments of similar themes – family seeecrets and the lives of sideshow performers. The Book of Speculation has a lightness to it – where its magical elements give it a fairytale feeling, despite some potentially bad things happening to its characters. this one?? there is no magic to be found here; this is a dark dark world.

and i do so like the dark.

this is manhattan and coney island – 1895, and the story has four major characters: the twins odile and isabelle, sylvan, and alphie. it’s a tricksy book, and at first, it is unclear what connection these characters have to each other, as the narrative jumps from one to t’other, but have faith – things wind up tight as can be, with many unexpected revelations along the way. even the surprises you can half-predict will have unexpected details that are shiveringly good.

it’s got a sarah waters quality in its breadth of historical detail, and parry never shies away from gruesomely vivid descriptions. whether it be the brutal conditions of women consigned to an asylum or the details of the sex trade or waste removal in turn of the century new york, or how to make absolutely sure a secret is kept – nothing is spared. and yet it isn’t gratuitous for all that – there’s a matter-of-factness to her prose that prevents it from veering into that shock value territory that lingers unpleasantly over the gory details. it’s a hard world on display, but it feels utterly, howlingly real.

this one requires a little bit of patience and attention – it’s not a difficult read, but it simmers for a while before the rolling boil. but it’s a great simmer, and the eventual boil is just frosting. i may have gotten lost in my own metaphor there.

i don’t want to give any details away with this one – you will forgive me. but this is a book whose reading experience i feel can be negatively impacted by going in knowing too much. all you need to know is that it is a brilliant debut that’s not always pretty, but is incredibly well-crafted.

i liked this one more than The Book of Speculation, but i am someone who skews dark. potential reader – know thyself. i predict that The Book of Speculation will appeal to a wider audience, but this one is a little more ambitious and a lot more gritty, which is what appeals to me. they’re both outstanding – if you have room in your life for two circussy books, you should absolutely read them both. if not – gauge your mood and assess whether you are feeling magical realism-y or bleak realism-y.

i have only one word: alphie.

read my reviews on goodreads

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