Book review: Orphans of the Carnival

Carol BirchWhat to say about this unusual novel by Carol Birch? First, I loved part of it. Second, I didn’t realize until I got to the end that it is loosely-based on a true story. If you loved Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, try this.

A young veiled woman travels by train from Mexico to New Orleans. She is disfigured but we don’t know the exact details until quite a way into the book: this is a novel which rewards patient reading. Julia Pastrana becomes a music hall attraction – singing, dancing, playing a guitar – while undergoing examinations by doctors who proclaim her part-human. Her successive managers make the most of the doctors’ pronouncements. This is a linear narrative, Julia’s life story, driven by her search for unconditional love.

The real Julia Pastrana had large ears and nose, irregular teeth and straight black hair all over her body. Despite her obvious intelligence – she spoke three languages – the myths continued until her death. It is an indictment of the way people not considered ‘normal’ were treated in the 19th century, seeing them as attractions rather than people with feelings.

The modern-day storyline of Rose, a young woman who collects unwanted items, was, for me, an unnecessary distraction from the main story. The obvious connection between the two women is their struggle to fit into society, though Rose is more of an emotional drifter.

For a brief taster of Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, click here.

If you like ‘Orphans of the Carnival’, try these other historical novels:-
‘An Appetite for Violets’ by Martine Bailey
‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton
‘Frog Music’ by Emma Donoghue

‘Orphans of the Carnival’ by Carol Birch [UK: Canongate] Buy at Amazon

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
ORPHANS OF THE CARNIVAL by @CarolBirch #bookreview via @SandraDanby