The year is 1895. Sylvan, a night soiler and street fighter, discovers an infant girl in the muck of a privy one night in Manhattan. Haunted by the ghosts of his adopted family, he takes the girl on, unable to bear the guilt of another lost human life. Little does he realize, but the girl is the center of many other stories, and will bring together a flurry of misfits as they try to make the pieces of their lives fit.
Meanwhile, on nearby Coney Island, Odile Church is reeling from the loss of all she knows. A devastating fire destroyed her mother’s sideshow performance, killing her and many of the theater employees, including the show’s exotic tigers, whose recurring imagery haunts me well beyond the story itself. What’s more, Odile’s twin sister, Belle, has also disappeared, leaving Odile adrift in her own home, until a letter from Manhattan prompts her to search for her sister and bring her back to the island.
Lastly, we have Alphie, whose story is the hardest to speak of without giving too much away. When we meet her she is on her way to an island, where women who have deemed mentally unstable are kept in a work house, locked away from the mainland and any chance of escape. Her tales asks question after question, as we learn of her cruel mother-in-law, the Signora, and her husband, Anthony, who Alphie struggles to believe in as the hours pass and he does not arrive to free her from her false imprisonment.
A vibrantly written tale, it is easy to see the images Ms. Parry pours onto the page, the kite-staggered beaches of Coney Island, the filthy, stinking streets of Manhattan, the Widows Walk, down by the sea. Every locale is brought to loud, reeking life, you feel the turn of the wheel at the sideshow, hear the knives sink into the wood. The stench of hair grease, face paint, fish oil, blood, and wilting flowers linger in your nose. It’s characters are imperfect, unsure, constantly questioning themselves and their surroundings, and I too, was left never knowing what to believe, given just enough to keep the pages turning, but not so much that I knew where the story would end.
And we do have twists, like the dust jacket promises, there are revelations in those pages I was not expecting, but when they came to light my heart was athunder and it left me even more endeared to the main characters, especially Alphie.
And yet, and yet… There is the tale end, the wrapping up, the conclusion of this chapter of the characters lives, and it left me underwhelmed.
I will do my best to be vague, but I cannot guarantee I will not spoil an aspect of the story in the following parts.
First of all, there is the recurring image of the Signora and her teeth collection. Over and over we are reminded of this, the image of this stately matron, shrouded in black, watching as her young daughter-in-law carefully polishes tooth after tooth. The teeth appear again, in the image of a broken baby rattle. The entire time I was sure that this strange collection would have some meaning, some greater purpose to the narrative, but as far as I can tell it did not, only serving as an example of the Signora strangeness and morbidity.
Secondly, the introduction letter from Bell is misleading, like it was written first, for a slightly different story. She mentions early on that her tongue was removed, and that she held it, molding and white, in her own hands. I’ve reread the scene where this could have happened twice, and as far as I can tell she never does.
Her sister Odile is often a confusing character, born needing to wear a back brace for her early years, her infirmity also seems to lead to fainting spells, though this is never explained, again and again she is left making questionable decisions while her mind is a whirl and her heart faint. One choice she makes at the end is never explained, despite it being at best dubious, if not outright insane. We are then treated to a scene of her having some sort of out-of-body experience, although true mysticism was never confirmed as a part of this continuity.
I was also disappointed in Alphie’s character arch, while realizing many important things about her identity and what she was actually looking for in her marriage to Anthony, she is left at square one, back at the job she had before she wed, which had been painted as terrible before, but now is portrayed as relatively pleasant. I wanted something more for her, even if it was simply a permanent home and three hot meals a day.
All in all, I would say Church of Marvels is worth the read, simply for the vibrant world Ms. Parry has created. Sylvan, too, is an endearing and interesting person, self motivated and principled, yet full of quiet rage, his tale garnered the most sympathy from me, especially since he so consistently rose above the trials Manhattan was throwing at him. I found it a little doubtful how quickly he and Odile established a relationship, especially considering Odile had never been in one before, and while it did distract me at times, it didn’t lessen the narrative by any means.
It was absolutely one of the more exciting books I’ve read in some time, some of Alphie’s scenes left me breathless with their speed and intensity, and there were never parts that dragged. Like a visit to Coney Island itself, the book reads fast, leaving you a whirl in lights and sounds, a cast of characters spinning behind the leads in tea colored skirts and prosthetic limbs. The dreamlike descriptions alone are worth your time, and the story will certainly whisk you away, even if it leaves you washed up on the shore, tangled kites in the wet sand around you, tiger’s paw prints leading into the sea.
Conclusion: Read it.