There’s something about a disheveled carnival that screams drama. If you’re anything like me, this assumption is paired with a gleeful snicker and rubbing of the hands, the universal symbol for “oh, this is about to get GOOD.”
Leslie Parry is a Chicagoan and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Alone, both of these facts would merit her debut novel, Church of Marvels, a second look from me. But together? And paired with carnie mayhem? I mean, this was a no-brainer. I immediately plunged in.
And please do not believe that I chose the word “plunged” arbitrarily. Reading this book is not unlike being submerged in some murky city river, everything glowing green and gold with the faint taste of chemicals and something more sinister lurking beneath the surface.
The book begins with an epigraph of the iconic William Blake poem, “The Tyger,” which may come as no surprise in theme. I believe it’s a testament to Parry’s ingenuity that she refuses to list the most famous stanza, opting for a different passage, one far more speculative and dreamy than the opening stanza proves.
But no matter! Who am I to judge her Epigraph?
Her reticence to take the most well-worn path is something that one sees throughout her novel. What could in the hands of a less-skilled writer turn into a clichéd disaster or a herky-jerky mystery remains a lush and moving story in Parry’s competent grasp.
The book takes place in turn of the century New York and follows three main characters in incredibly diverse situations, one a reformed street-urchin, another a jaded oddities performer, and still another a well-taken care of city wife who’s fallen on some… let’s call them hard times. I hesitate to tell you more, because I think this book is best read knowing as little as possible.
The story takes a little getting used to. Each chapter switches narrators, a trope that has become so popular it’s getting annoying, and the story is already so complicated it takes a few dozen pages to really set the place, time, and characters.
Once some time has passed, the novel occurs to you like a slow memory, full of the vivid sights, sounds, and harsh truths of turn-of-the-century New York. There’s a heftiness to her prose that accentuates the full-bodied experience one might have simply walking down the street; the air is heavy with soot and sweat, bodies are moist and close together, and, as we’ll soon realize, no one’s motives are clear.
Parry does a nice job of taking a collection of redeemable characters in merciless circumstances and detailing their misery without coming off as vengeful or vulgar. The story reads like a fable, and, as with fables, often the punishments are heavier than the happy endings. A baby is discovered in a latrine, covered entirely with waste. A deformed woman has lost her entire family in a strange fire that haunts her waking life. Another woman wakes up in an insane asylum beside a woman with her tongue cut off.
At its heart, Church of Marvels is a mystery. We’re riding a strange merry-go-round to get to the heart of each characters private tragedy that, in knowing each other, has been made public.
At times, this structure works beautifully. I was flipping pages before finishing the final sentence just to see what happens next. At its conclusion, the slow rotations start to feel like the carnival ride they are, and you come away wondering when it will slow down and let you regain your sense of balance.
But ultimately, I believe that was Parry’s point. Our equilibrium is persistently disturbed in this book until up is down and down is up. Only through the freakish do we come to learn about our most human selves. And likewise, the truly monstrous is revealed within the mundane. She’s not the first to tackle these themes, but she’s a serious contender.
Parry does some interesting work with gender issues, addiction, and historical social politics, but to stress these issues would be to miss the real joy of this novel: it’s a really freaking great story. I highly recommend giving Leslie Parry a chance as we move into the season of Beach Reads. I assure you that this novel manages to keep your eyes glued to the page without sacrificing quality.