Publisher: John Murray Press / Two Roads | Published: 4th June 2015 | Edition: Kindle via NetGalley
Firstly, let’s be clear about something: I loved EVERYTHING about this book. The writing, the story, the character names and THAT cover – just how perfect can one book be?
Inside this gorgeous cover spins an atmospheric world where the writing is sublime. As I strolled with wide-eyes throughout this book I could almost hear the echoing clop of hooves, whiff the lingering grime in the air and sense the occasional moan from an opium den.
It’s a vivid tale that will test the strongest resolve and prod the hardest of hearts.
And with phrases like this you can’t go wrong:
“Everything smelled like the damp of a ship, wet fur and raw potato.”
Apologies for the lengthy review – this book is very worthy of it!:
Twins, Belle and Odile, are the first threads woven into this late 19th century tapestry. The seventeen year old sisters who, despite their almost identical looks and crescent-shaped birth marks, perform individually the Church of Marvels, a theatre in Coney Island set up by her mother, Friendship Willingbird Church.
Belle is an expert contortionist and sword swallower – and Odile, who has suffered with a disfigured spine since birth, yet not at any real disadvantage, spins furiously on a wheel, as a muse in a daring knife throwing act. Other companions have grown up with the sisters and include a four legged girl and a half-girl/half-boy, who also perform in the show. They each have an understanding of each other, until tragedy strikes…
After a fire razes the Church of Marvels to the ground and their mother is found to have perished among the dead, Odile and the others find themselves appearing in a side show directed by their new director, the mocking Mr Guilfoyle.
Soon Belle disappears, but has written a letter to her sister to tell her that it is Odile’s that has been the stronger one. At first Odile believes her sister to be grief stricken after their mother’s passing, yet she can’t stop the gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach that something is amiss, and sets to work to try and find her twin. The only clue she has to her whereabouts is a vague address on the top of the letter, which leads her to an odd Apothecary shop. When everyone denies seeing Belle, Odile is more determined than ever to find her.
Yet another thread is introduced into the story when young Sylvan Threadgill makes a startling discovery whilst cleaning out the privies during his night shift. As a ‘night-soiler’ he gets to keep anything of value he finds, but that evening, Sylvan gets the shock of his life when he digs a limp baby girl out of the filth. Sylvan’s boss, Mr Everjohn, said he should put the child back where he found it, as if it were worthless. But the young man, an orphan himself, couldn’t discard the child and embarks on a journey to try and find where the baby came from, or at least ensure she has a good home.
The last stitch to close the story is Alphine. After earning her money in prostitution, she had settled down with an Italian undertaker. And yet she finds herself being transported to an institution with a throng of women who are suffering dreadfully. With no memory, Alphine tries to piece together the jigsaw of how she came to arrive at the Asylum.
She begs a nurse not to strip and bathe her in the cold water in exchange for her gold wedding band; Alphine conceals a secret, which she must keep hidden for fear of receiving worse even treatment (which would seem impossible after all she’s been through already). It is in the Asylum where she met Orchard Broom, a mysterious inmate, who can only be identified by a tattoo bearing a name she received on her arrival. Soon, when the determined mute girl mysteriously coughs up a pair of scissors, she and Alphine hatch a daring plan of escape to leave the insanity and cruelty behind them.
Snippets of Alphine’s memory returns in fleeting glimpses until the reasons for her confinement are finally revealed – and how dreadful it is, you think you’re safe and loved and how quickly things can change… Now the two of them must confront their past to enable them to mould their futures.
Like the points on a compass the paths of Belle, Odile, Alphine, Sylvan and his miraculous discovery of an abandoned child are magnetised in the same direction, until they all arrive at the same point in the story – and it’s so beautifully done.
You think with a title like the Church of Marvels that this will be a tale of curiosity for amusement. But it’s filled with grit, hardship and cruelty. Yet astonishingly, skulking in the shadows of unseemly pits of despair there is also a glimmer of hope.
Like Sylvan Threadgill, if you dig deep you will find it.
Rating: A no-messing, solid 5/5
(My thanks to the publisher for the copy I received via NetGalley.)
You can follow the author on Twitter: @leslie_parry