Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch: Roll up, roll up…

Cover imageI 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.

16 thoughts on “Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch: Roll up, roll up…”

  1. Thanks for this very enticing review. You reminded me I’ve been meaning to get to ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie.’ It’s sitting around here somewhere, amongst my thousands of books! Yeah, good luck to me in finding it…

    1. You’re welcome, Lisa. I think I preferred Jamrach to this one – good luck in ferreting it out of that pile!

  2. This sounds like a great story, even more so because it is based on a true one. I think you’re right that we don’t live in as enlightened times as we’d like to believe.

    1. Sadly, not. I hated those trailers, so often about people living in poverty trying to cope with their problems. I suppose you could argue that they would have been paid but it’s so exploitative. I could just imagine the endearing Julia on one of those shows.

  3. I think your final comment is spot on, Susan. This is on my pile (no surprises there) but I didn’t know there was a more modern thread to it too. I suspect I’ll return to discuss further when I’ve read it.

    1. I knew you’d have it on your shelves, Naomi. The twentieth-century thread is quite slight so it doesn’t intrude into Julia’s story excessively but it jarred a little for me. I’ll be interested to see what you think.

      1. Aso would I… as I’m looking particularly at multi thread novels at the moment. Maybe an obvious comparison but made me think Angela Carter … and therefore intrigued.

        1. Similar territory to Nights at the Circus, Poppy, although Birch is a very different writer – much more straightforward, I’d say. Interesting that you’re looking at multi-thread novels. Is it a project for your blog or for your own writing?

  4. I can imagine that she creates this world very vividly, based on my memories of reading Jamrach’s Menagerie. However, as with that novel, I can’t imagine it’s a very comfortable place to inhabit; I think I’d have to be in a very particular mood to enjoy this read. Content-wise, it makes me think of the third season of “American Horror Story” and Katherine Dunn’s terrific novel, Geek Love. Maybe, in the right mood….

    1. It’s extraordinarily vivid and all done with a great deal of empathy which, of course , makes Julia’s plight all the more heartrending. American Horror Story looks a little too scary for me!

  5. I’ve got this one on my wish list, but I didn’t realise it was (at least in part) inspired by a real woman. I’ve heard at least one other reviewer say the contemporary narrative thread didn’t work for them either.

    1. I think it would have been a much better book without the contemporary thread. It’s hard to know what the point of it was. Have you read Jamrach’s Menagerie? My favourite of the two.

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