I suspect Carol Birch has something of a fascination with the world of circuses and freak shows. Set in the nineteenth century, her last novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie, followed Jaffy who is sent to the Dutch East Indies to capture a ‘dragon’ for the eponymous menagerie but finds himself shipwrecked. Orphans of the Carnival ventures far further into that world, telling the story of Julia Pastrana, a heavily hirsute Mexican woman, eager to see the world and willing to pay the price.
Julia tucks away the card a visiting impresario hands her, knowing that it’s her passport into the world outside the small town she’s never left. Heavily veiled, she takes the long and arduous journey to New Orleans accompanied only by the crude wooden doll her mother made for her before disappearing. Rates can hardly believe his luck when Julia arrives, establishing her in his sister-in-law’s lodging house where she meets several more of his clients. She is to make her debut topping the bill of a show that will include Cato, an exuberant pinhead. Julia’s reception is more than Rates could have hoped for – ostensibly a musical performance, everyone knows it’s her unveiling that the audience have paid for. So begins a career in which she will be handed on from manager to manager, travelling the world but not seeing it, lonely and hoping for love, sometimes reunited with the few friends she makes, including her dearest Cato. When Theo Lent makes her an offer, dangling the delights of Prague, Vienna and Saint Petersburg before her, she takes him up on it and the world opens up a little. She’s feted by royalty, taken to a glittering ball, welcomed as the guest of honour at grand dinner parties. Money, however, is always exchanged. Love of a sort is found but this is not a story that was ever going to end well. Woven through Julia’s tale is that of Rose, who in 1983 finds a dilapidated wooden doll in a London skip.
Orphans of the Carnival takes its story from the bare bones of Julia Pastrana’s life and it’s this knowledge that makes the book so poignant. Julia suffered from a rare genetic condition but lived in a time when human deformity was paraded around and presented as entertainment. Birch spins her story well, carefully avoiding the sentimental yet always compassionate – there’s a particularly heartrending scene when Julia whispers to a Saint Petersburg fortune-teller ‘Am I human?’ It’s an absorbing novel with some gorgeously descriptive passages but what didn’t work for me was the twentieth-century thread. I’m still not entirely sure why Birch decided to include it; it seemed something of a distraction from Julia’s extraordinary story. We live in much more enlightened times these days but as I read Birch’s novel I was reminded of those queasy trailers several years back for a Channel 4 series featuring people with deforming medical conditions. Maybe we’re neither as sensitive nor as enlightened as we like to think we are.