Review: Church of Marvels

Greetings and salutations to all of you book lovers (and Spring!). If you’re looking for a new book to take outside and enjoy in this lovely March weather, this may be it. I’m talking about Leslie Parry’s novel, Church of Marvels.

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I stumbled across this treasure in a great little bookstore, and with only a moment’s consideration, bought a book I’d never heard of. Sometimes the best books are the ones that catch my eye unexpectedly and are bought on a whim, and this one did not disappoint.

About the story: Three seemingly unrelated lives (plus a mysterious baby and one twin sister) converge in this epic tale that takes place in turn-of-the (20th) century New York. Church of Marvels is the name of a Coney Island sideshow that struggles to keep its footing after a tragic fire. The characters of this historical fiction thriller show the reader what it’s like behind the scenes at the sideshow, but also along the darkest streets of New York at the darkest hours of night, and inside an insane asylum. Everyone has unspeakable secrets that tie them together, and anything is possible in this world of illusion and disenchantment.

“The boatman saw a figure on the landing. He squinted and shielded his eyes from the sun, which rose above the fog and turned everything white. There was a commotion on the grounds beyond–cracks and shouts, the thunder of horses. He would have mistaken it all for a picnic race if he hadn’t known exactly where he was heading, and if he hadn’t seen the women, wrangled and dog-bitten, bleeding on the shore. Christ, he thought–the fools were having another one of their fits…He looped the bowline around the horn, then looked up at his passenger. ‘Ready to go, chap?’ The young man nodded and lifted his trunk, turning his face toward Manhattan. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’ve never been readier in my life.'”

On format: The narration follows each of the three main characters individually, which feels a little disjointed at first before the stories connect, but they’re all riveting, even while they’re separate. There are also a few snippets here and there of nearby characters, like the boatman from the passage I’ve quoted above; these characters are less important to the story overall, but share bits of insight and impressions that pertain to the main characters and add a wonderful depth to the narrative. The prose is similarly descriptive and blunt throughout the book, no matter which character is in focus (by which I mean that the narration is a consistent third person, not that each character has the same voice) so it’s important to pay attention to names and character details in the beginning while everyone is being established. That said, I didn’t have much difficulty keeping the characters straight, and I loved how real they seemed even though they were all so different from myself.

Content details: Although this book is set in 1895, some of the subject matter was definitely interesting to read in comparison with more modern practices and attitudes. Rules of society were different then, but it was great to think about how far we’ve come while reading about the horrifying treatment of “lunatics” at the asylum, the fates of unwanted babies, the behaviors of and reactions to transgender persons, and the struggle of extreme poverty in a large city. I think Parry did a great job writing about the past in light of more modern views on difficult subjects, so that her captivating plot was combined in Church of Marvels with strong writing that make every page of this book uniquely interesting. I give 5 out of 5 stars.

Further recommendations:

  1. If the sideshow aspect of Church of Marvels appeals to you, try Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, which is primarily set around the train cars of a traveling circus that crosses America in the 1920’s-30’s. Both of these novels depict behind-the-scenes details and a wide array of diverse characters, as well as an addicting plot.
  2. Although it’s nonfiction, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City reads as easily as a fictional tale. Set in Chicago in the 1890’s as the World’s Fair was being constructed, details of the fair and general life around the turn of the century are mixed with the story of American murderer H. H. Holmes, who took advantage of the influx of people to the city to commit a multitude of crimes. This is a great read for anyone who’s interested in historical fiction, and I actually did read it around the same time as Church of Marvels and thought they were a great fit.

Do you have comments or recommendations for me? Please leave them below!

Coming up next: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, a historical fiction novel set in Stalinist Russia. This is the most intense murder mystery I’ve ever read, and I’m not even sure calling it a murder mystery accurately describes what’s going on in this book. Tune in later this week to find out why I found this book so compelling!

Happy reading!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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