Review: Orphans of the Carnival, Carol Birch

Orphans of the Carnival takes as its subject the life of Julia Pastrana, who I discovered half way through reading had actually been a real person.  Born in Mexico during the Victorian era, Pastrana suffered from two separate genetic disorders which left her covered in hair all over her body and also with protuding lips and jaw.  Contemporary doctors proclaimed her the missing link between humanity and orang-utans and she found herself paraded across America and Europe as part of various circus acts and freak shows which reached peak popularity during that era.  Feted as “The Bear Woman” or “The Ugliest Woman in the World”, Julia became famous and along the way, she fell in with a new manager, Theodore Lent.  Travelling as far as Vienna and St Petersburg, she eventually married Lent before dying in childbirth while still in her twenties.  Lent, ever a man to know a good deal when he saw it, continued to display Julia and their dead child in embalmed form for several decades after their death, before the market soured and Julia ended up in long-term storage before finally being buried in Mexico in 2013, one hundred and fifty years after her death.  Ironically enough, for someone regarded as not quite human during her lifetime, the case of Julia Pastrana does not show humanity in its best light.

julia-pastranaDiscovering the true origins of the story only once I was in the midst of it, Orphans of the Carnival is clearly able to stand as a novel on its own merits.  Indeed, the novel is clearly kin to the slew of fairground themed tales which have emerged in the wake of The Night Circus.  Birch’s Pastrana is a gentle soul, growing up in a convent and finally being tempted out by an offer to perform on the stage.  Julia Pastrana does seem to have been very talented, multilingual and talented both as a singer and with her dancing.  Birch steps inside her mind to imagine Julia strumming her guitar onstage, singing to her audience and knowing that she makes them happy, because they are so glad not to be her.  Birch contrasts the adulation which Pastrana received with the horror she inspired, how she could go from a standing ovation one day to having the show pulled the following due to fears that the sight of Julia’s face might lead expectant mothers to miscarry.Julia and Theo travel through the bright lights and high fliers of European Victorian society.  Birch paints Julia as a sweet and naive young woman, unschooled in artifice and anxious to please, meaning that it can be difficult to remember that this pleasant young woman had a face that caused such uproar.  Julia still makes friends and has successes, but then there are the humiliations, the examinations by doctors, the articles that ponder what she is – orang-utan, savage, part-bear – so that even Julia herself wonders whether she is truly human.  Even when she does receive apparently sincere praise for her singing, she quietly acknowledges that the audience are simply surprised to hear something other than a roar coming from her mouth.

Threaded through the story of Pastrana’s life is a modern day narrative, featuring Rose, a compulsive hoarder who appears to feel little for the various men who attempt to capture her affection.  Unfortunately, this strand feels like a distraction compared to the far more compelling main narrative and although Birch does manage to tie Rose in to Julia’s story, it comes too late to be convincing and for me jarred quite considerably.  The crunch point of the novel comes when Julia gives birth to her child, with her husband selling tickets to come and look at her in her hospital bed and agreeing when a museum asks permission to buy their son’s corpse for research purposes.  Birch captures so well Theo’s amoral detachment about what he is doing, his slippery desire to hold on to the golden goose – it is he who is monstrous, not his wife – but I wished that she had had the courage to drive the point home.

I read an interview with Birch where she expressed her sorrow over what became of Julia, but also how her heart broke for the baby.  So did mine.  When the bodies were rediscovered, the child was so badly degraded that he could not be repaired and was thrown out with the rubbish.  Birch felt, rightly, that the boy had been treated as if he was nothing and she had a desire to reclaim him.  The Orphans of the Carnival  celebrates the drama and magic of the stage and the circus, the colourful and glittering lives the performers led, but yet I felt we only glimpsed at the tragedy and the cruelty that marked the lives of the performers.  I felt a sense of discomfort at any attempt to imagine a ‘rescue’ for Theo Junior.  We do not deserve to be let off the hook about that little boy, whose life was over before it began and yet his father paraded him as a freak for decades.  It’s an uncomfortable chapter in our cultural history and I felt that Julia and baby Theo deserved better than what they get here.

It’s possible that I am being picky or indeed over-sensitive – Orphans of the Carnival is a light and enjoyable novel, an easy read.  Fans of The Night Circus will enjoy it.  Aside from the discordant modern day vignettes, the novel is well-written and has good pacing.  It’s just that I am caught by the fact that these were real people – there are photos of Julia after a century on display, of her baby on the autopsy table.  This feels like a ‘beach read’ sort of book, to be read for escapism, and while I applaud Birch’s desire to bring Julia’s story to our attention, I felt that her novel did not quite live up to its subject matter and I did not come away feeling that I had gained a true understanding of the people whose lives Birch recreates.

 

 

two-half-stars
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Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch
Published by Canongate Books on September 1st 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, General
Pages: 352
Goodreads
ISBN: 9781782116554


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6 thoughts on “Review: Orphans of the Carnival, Carol Birch

  1. In your final paragraph you put “It’s possible that I am being picky or indeed over-sensitive…” given the subject matter of the novel I don’t think you are at all, if anything you have given quite a positive review for a book, from your description, that doesn’t deserve it.

    We, or I hope most of us, recoil at the ‘freak’ shows of previous centuries and the idea of the past that institutions such as the Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam) for the mentally ill were places to visit on Sundays for pleasure to go and gawp at the inmates. Yet we now live in age where those who are perceived as ‘different’ in some way are paraded before us on television or the Internet for entertainment, but usually under the guise that we are ‘helping’ such people.

    The woman and child in ‘Orphans of the Carnival’ are victims in so many ways and on so many levels, and even after 150 years receiving a proper burial now are used as starting point for a novel. Why a novel? Their story is worthy of documenting with some kind of analysis or critique of how and why they were exploited. It seems that Carol Birch had an interesting idea for a novel about a hoarder (something I am guilty of myself at a low level) but the story of one mixed in with the terrible life of Julia Pastrana seems an odd way to approach it.

    Birch, of course, is not the first to do this. I’m reminded of Helen Hodgman’s ‘Broken Words’ which trivialises the liberation of the concentration camps at the end of WWII in pursuit of a supposedly ‘comic’ novel.

    Thank you for bringing the book to our attention, and, despite my comments, such a good review.

    1. I agree – what I was trying to get at is that I do try to avoid the stereotypical millennial hysteria over anything even vaguely controversial – but in fairness, this is in reaction to fairly flagrant breaches of fair treatment down the centuries – the case of Julia Pastrana being only one such.
      I agree too that reality television is a separate kind of freak show – Jeremy Kyle show is another, a sort of modern bear-baiting.
      The strand of the novel about hoarding was the least compelling – the characters were flat as pancakes and the way they were woven back into the main narrative was unconvincing. I was interested in the novel, highly so, but really only in so far as it related to the true story. I may well look out for Birch’s other material because she is a good writer – I think she tried to do something ‘good’ with this novel and it just didn’t quite come together.

  2. I’ve been circling around this one and I’m so glad to hear your thoughts on it. I really value your opinions.
    I do like the era and the idea of the spectacle. I enjoy vintage circus and vaudeville stories but I had no idea this was based on real people either. That certainly changes things and I can see why a reader would want the author to really underline the unfinished aspect of how they were treated postmortem.

    1. The part of the ‘post-mortem’ aspect which made me feel most sad – and the whole thing was horrendous – was that someone stole Julia’s pearl cross from round her neck and replaced it with a replica as it was too nice for a corpse. It’s the total lack of respect – there are photos of her mummified/taxidermied remains and when you compare that to the photos of the living woman, it’s incredibly heartbreaking that that was done to her. A really unsavoury episode from history – I enjoy circus stories too but not like this.

  3. I’m really interested in various organizations that displayed humans as “freaks,” against their will or with consent or some mirky area between the two. But I think it’s one of those things that’s too awful for me to read about it in fiction, and I have to stick with nonfiction to maintain some kind of emotional distance. I read Pamela Newkirk’s book Spectacle last year, about Ota Benga, and it was ROUGH but not I imagine as rough as if it had been a novel. So I’ll probably give this one a miss and maybe sometime I’ll find a good nonfiction book about Pastrana.

    1. I know – this book made me really curious about the real woman but I just felt a bit uncomfortable that she had been used to satisfy the appetite for ‘books that are a bit like the Night Circus’. The weird sub-plot didn’t help. In fairness it was well-written. I’m not an expert in this area of history but it does make me really sad. So often the ones being pilloried as ‘freaks’ are the least monstrous ones in that situation.

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