New York, 1895. Sylvan Threadgill, a night soiler cleaning out the privies behind the tenement houses, finds an abandoned newborn baby in the muck. An orphan himself, Sylvan rescues the child, determined to find where she belongs.
Odile Church and her beautiful sister, Belle, were raised amid the applause and magical pageantry of The Church of Marvels, their mother’s spectacular Coney Island sideshow. But the Church has burnt to the ground, their mother dead in its ashes. Now Belle, the family’s star, has vanished into the bowels of Manhattan, leaving Odile alone and desperate to find her.
A young woman named Alphie awakens to find herself trapped across the river in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum—sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband’s vile, overbearing mother. On the ward she meets another young woman of ethereal beauty who does not speak, a girl with an extraordinary talent that might save them both.
As these strangers’ lives become increasingly connected, their stories and secrets unfold. Moving from the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular human circus to a brutal, terrifying asylum, Church of Marvels takes readers back to turn-of-the-century New York—a city of hardship and dreams, love and loneliness, hope and danger. In magnetic, luminous prose, Leslie Parry offers a richly atmospheric vision of the past in a narrative of astonishing beauty, full of wondrous enchantments-a marvellous debut that will leave readers breathless.
At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 3.77 out of 5
One of my favourite things ever is picking up books I’ve not heard of and discovering a gem. Despite the occurrence of some dark subject matters, I found ‘The Church of Marvels’ to be a real pleasure to read.
I would consider this book to be of the magical realism flavour and was quite similar in places to another book – ‘The Museum of Extraordinary Things’ by Alice Hoffman – predominantly due to the setting.
Both ‘The Museum’ and ‘The Church’ have set their stories in 1890’s New York City and both contain an event known as the Coney Island Fire. This was something that I hadn’t even heard of until I read Alice Hoffman’s book – see, books help you learn!
There must be something about this particular period in time that lends itself to slightly dark, slightly mystical and yet strangely optimistic tales although at times you may have to dig a little deeper for the optimism.
Does the setting work here? Yes, I think it does. I really got the sense of the grimy, hardened world of turn of the century New York City and could almost feel the steam waft up from those street vents. One thing that I enjoy is when writers do their research and show it within the world they have created instead of piling on excessive exposition just to demonstrate that yes, they have in fact picked up some history books. I felt that the writer managed to ‘show, not tell,’ quite successfully.
In terms of the characters there are three main ones for a book of approx. 308 pages (not a big book by any stretch) which could be a challenge for an author to distribute equal weighting to their individual voices. Personally, I think a decent job was done here of dividing the time between time and none were neglected or overshadowed. Now, this is just my opinion but I think if you were to choose a main protagonist I would go with Odile.
Although Odile came across as the main protagonist (in my completely humble opinion) my favourite viewpoint by far was Alphie’s. In fact, the only issue I have is that her story didn’t feel fully wrapped up by the end. Some of the darkest subject matter in the book occurs within her experiences and ranges from prostitution, opium dens and her experiences in a women’s asylum. Alphie could easily have had her own solo story and in some ways, I wish she did.
‘The Church of Marvels’ does start as a bit of a slow burner with each protagonist’s story seeming to toddle along in separate lanes with no real urgency. Also, at the beginning no clear direction is given as to how the three could possibly be connected and I started to wonder if they even would be connected. Then, as soon as it clicks, the pace goes off very quickly with the characters weaving together with some – quite coincidental – intricacy.
One massive tick in my plus column is that this book has a twist about halfway through which I did not see coming at all. I would be surprised if anyone does as it’s hidden so well up until the reveal. The hints were constantly being revealed but it’s hard to pick up on these on the first read. You do have an ‘ah-ha!’ moment where a little light-bulb goes off over your head. I won’t even mention the twist here because I feel it is worth the reveal to anyone who reads this book.
Now, if you want happy this isn’t the book for you. If you want deep historical fiction this also isn’t the book for you. If you want magical realism in grimy turn of the century New York City with sadness and suffering then this is the one for you! This is clearly for me as I found the story to be engaging and well written with the writing offering up some immersive details that can be both beautiful and brutal depending on the nature of the scene. I look forward to reading more from the writer.