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.
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.
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Published by Canongate Books on September 1st 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, General
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