Church of Marvels
Release Date: May 5, 2015
In 1895, in New York City, Sylvan, a young man whose job it is to muck out the waste in the public privies finds an infant left to die in the filth. Remembering the kindness of the family who took him in before they succumbed to consumption (Sylvan tried to save their son, but the little boy was too sick), he steals away from work and hides the child in his room on Ludlow Street. Understanding what it is to belong to no one, Sylvan vows to find someone who will want this child.
Across the water on Coney Island, Odile Church performs on the Wheel of Death, her strapped body spinning as blindfolded Mack throws knives and the crowd gasps. But Odile’s mind is not on the act – it is on a letter that has finally come from her twin sister, Isabelle, who had left ten weeks ago, after the fire that destroyed their family’s famed attraction, the Church of Marvels, after the death in that fire of their ferocious and spectacular mother, Friendship Willingbird Church, the fabled Tiger Queen, the Grand Dame of Coney Island. But the letter, despite being wistful and full of sadness, gave no clue as to where Belle had gone, so once more Odile was left to face her grief alone.
Alphie doesn’t know where she is, other than unfairly trapped on an island across the water from Manhattan. She thinks it might be a prison, for she has been ill treated, and has been forced to march around the island while pilloried and chained to other unfortunate women as dirty and despairing as she is. Surely Anthony will come for her soon, when he finds out where she is. After all, he is her husband; surely he will come for her, even if it is her vile mother-in-law’s words that ring in her memory from before she awoke in this place: il mostro – a monster.
And so begins a vivid tale of intertwining personal loss in an age when life itself was treacherous and most existed on the edge of a knife. It was a time of dirt and squalor and every man for himself, when mere existence was all that could be asked for. But within each of these three separate individuals lies a determination that loss will not define their lives. Each seeks to regain what has been missing from their lives – a husband, a sister, a home – so that they will be whole again.
The story in Church of Marvels is compelling, yes, but it is the writing in this book that shines. When every aspect of a tale takes place in the dark underside of a grimy metropolis, it’s easy for an author to slide into debauchery and ugliness, but while Ms. Parry doesn’t gloss over the reality of life in turn-of-the-century New York, neither does she dwell on it. Rather, she allows it to paint a backdrop that makes her characters even more interesting. They are not heroic, but they do possess a kind of inner nobility. Secondary characters are also well defined, from Coney Island’s freaks to tenement dwellers to asylum inmates to fallen women.
Church of Marvels is indeed one of those books that resonates; it’s amazing that this is Ms. Perry’s first novel. One has to wonder what she’ll pull out of the hat next.