The Church of Marvels, a circus of fantastical tricks and flourishes, burns to the ground, with owner and mother of Odile and Belle inside. Belle disappears, and Odille sets off from Coney Island to New York to find her – and many secrets. Meanwhile, ostracised, hairy night soiler Sylvan finds a baby, and Alphie finds herself forcibly and wrongfully put into a mental asylum. Secrets and discoveries abound as the stories weave together and the past pulls together to form a new present.
I was very excited to read this book, and even more so because I also got to interview the author! How fun! It was gripping and interesting, bringing alive characters and settings that I had never even heard of before, all bizarre and extreme in their experiences and stories. I had been hoping for something as good as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and it wasn’t that good – I wasn’t totally pulled in, and would have liked to have seen some more of the circus – but it was a magnificent nevertheless.
The characters were very well presented. All of them were outsiders, rejected and dismissed by society, but all of them very human and searching for family, love, We found out their backstories, their quirks, feelings and desperation to create lives for themselves; with love, home, family.
But the fact that the revelations of their history and pasts meant that perhaps we weren’t allowed to relate to them very closely; perhaps I would have been more emotionally invested if I knew more from the start what I was dealing with. And by perhaps two thirds of the way through the revelations ceased to shock me; I was ever expecting to hear stranger and stranger things.
It was also just so bizarre. It was so beyond the range of experience that again, it was hard to really enter into. I’m not sure that this is a bad thing in itself; it made the novel almost into a sideshow itself; showing off the strangeness and extremities of human experience.
There was a prologue and epilogue to the book, which really I would rather weren’t there. They were narrated by a character who we don’t see an awful lot of, and even by the end don’t really know. They seem incongruous to what is presented in the rest of the text, and I don’t think they really added anything to it.
All in all I’m glad I read it, and am still thinking about what I made of it. Whatever else, it was a marvellous achievement and a whirlwind of experience and strangeness – but I’m still not completely sure if I totally enjoyed it or not.