Tag Archives: Orphans of the Carnival

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of May paperbacks kicks of with Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival which tells the story of Julia Pastrana. Born in 1834, Julia is a heavily hirsute Mexican woman, eager to see the world and willing to pay the price even if that means allowing herself to be exhibited in a freak show. Her travels take her to Prague, Vienna and Saint Petersburg where she’s feted by royalty, taken to a glittering ball and welcomed as the guest of honour at grand dinner parties. Money, however, is always exchanged. Woven through Julia’s tale is that of Rose, who in 1983 finds a dilapidated wooden doll in a London skip. It’s an absorbing novel – the knowledge that Julia existed makes it particularly poignant – with some gorgeously descriptive passages but what didn’t work for me was the twentieth-century thread which was something of a distraction from Julia’s extraordinary story. Still well worth reading, but no match for Jamrach’s Menagerie, one of my Blasts From the Past.

Emma Cline’s debut The Girls is also loosely based in fact – the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son. One day in 1969, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals in a Californian park. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back at the dramatic events that shaped the course of her lonely life. Cline’s novel succeeds in engaging her readers’ sympathy steering well clear of the prurient. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me but that’s a small criticism. Cover image

Dominc Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos has a very appealing premise. It draws together a landscape painting by a woman admitted to a Dutch Guild as a master painter in 1631, the person who inherited it in the 1950s and a celebrated Australian art historian, about to curate an exhibition fifty years after forging the work, who finds herself faced with the arrival of both versions of it. ‘As the three threads intersect with increasing and exquisite suspense, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerises while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present’ says the publisher. Very much like the sound of this one.

Entirely different but also appealing, A. L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet sees a fifty-nine-year-old senior civil servant struggling with his conscience over his government’s shenanigans and on the brink of spilling the beans. Meanwhile, Meg Williams is a forty-five-year-old bankrupt accountant just about managing to keep sober. Set over twenty-four hours in 2014, it’s about ‘two decent, damaged people trying to make moral choices in an immoral world: ready to sacrifice what’s left of themselves for honesty, and for a chance at tenderness’ says the publisher. I have a very on-again off-again relationship with Kennedy’s writing but find state-of-the-nation novels well-nigh impossible to resist, even though the nation’s in a very different state these days.

Cover imageLast but very far from least, is Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning The Sellout, another coup for the excellent Oneworld. Billed as a ‘biting satire’, it’s about a young man who’s been the subject of his sociologist father’s controversial studies, under the impression that the resultant book will make the family’s fortune. After his father’s murder it becomes clear that there is no book. What’s more the small town of Dickens is no longer on the map, thanks to the embarrassing nature of his father’s work. The young man sets about righting what he sees as this wrong, taking outrageous measures that land him before the Supreme Court. ‘The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game’ promises the publisher and clearly the Man Booker judges agreed.

That’s it for May’s paperback preview. A click on the first two titles will take you to my review and to a detailed synopsis for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with the first part, it’s here while May hardbacks are here.

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.

Books to Look Out for in September 2016

Cover imageI like to kick off these previews with a novel that I can hardly wait to get my hands on. Sometimes there’s more than one, sometimes nothing that entirely fits the bill, but this month there’s no contest – the prospect of Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days has me almost slavering in anticipation. Brightness Falls was one of my favourite novels of the ‘90s, summing up the heady days of 1980s New York through the lives of Corrine and Russell, a glittering couple in love with each other and pursuing successful careers in a world where anything seemed possible if you were young, bright and fearless until the Wall Street crash of 1987 when the bubble finally burst. Of course, we’ve since been buffeted by a much more damaging financial crisis but Russell and Corrine have that yet to come. Obama and Clinton are still rivals, Lehman Brothers have not yet crashed as the couple go about their lives, Russell running his own publishing company, still hankering after the bohemian life, while Corrine manages a food redistribution programme, longing for more than just a loft to live in for their twelve-year-old twins. ‘A moving, deeply humane novel’ say the publishers which exactly summed up Brightness Falls for me although I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed in its sequel, The Good Life.

Still in New York for Tom Connolly’s Men Like Air which is described by the publishers as ‘a glorious love letter’ to the city, sealing the deal for me. It’s about four men and their relationships with each other: nineteen-year-old Finn, fresh from the UK; Jack, the brother Finn’s determined to track down; Leo, lonely and envious of his best friend’s life and William, not only Leo’s oldest friend but also his happily married brother-in-law. The lives of these four interconnect in unexpected ways, apparently. The ‘love letter to New York’ may have been the hook for me but male friendship is an unusual theme which gives Connolly’s novel an added draw.

We’re off to city far less celebrated than New York in American fiction for Christopher Hebert’s Angels of Detroit. Hebert’s novel explores what was once a beacon of America’s industrial success, now bankrupt and on the point of dereliction, through the lives of a wide Cover imagerange of characters, from activists intent on saving it to an old woman trying to establish a community garden, from a carpenter with an idea for regeneration to an executive who remembers Detroit in its bustling prime. ‘Driven by struggle and suspense, and shot through with a startling empathy, Christopher Hebert’s magnificent second novel unspools an American story for our time’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket to me.

I have something of an on again, off again relationship with Ann Patchett’s fiction – I loved The Magician’s Assistant but couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about with the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto . Commonwealth sounds tempting, though. Deputy District Attorney Bert Cousins falls for the mother of the baby whose christening party he’s crashed in 1964. Twenty-four years later Franny meets her literary idol and tells him her family’s story unaware of the far-reaching consequences she’s setting in train. It’s described by the publisher as ‘a powerful and tender tale of family, betrayal and the far-reaching bonds of love and responsibility… …a meditation on inspiration, interpretation and the ownership of stories’. I’m particularly interested by the ‘ownership of stories’ idea.

Georgia Bain’s Ester in Between a Wolf and a Dog continually listens to the stories of others. Ester is a family therapist, helping clients to navigate their way through misery to happiness on a daily basis. However her own life is far from a delight. Lonely and estranged from both her ex-husband and her sister, each of whom have their own problems, she’s about to face the consequences of a choice made by her mother that will affect them all. Sounds right up my street.

Cover imageAs well as starting with a much-anticipated novel I like to end with one, too, and Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival fits that slot beautifully. Picking up the performance theme of the marvellous Jamrach’s Menagerie with its Victorian East End setting, Birch’s latest novel has one foot in nineteenth-century Europe with Julia Patriana, known as much for her physical oddity as her singing and dancing talent, and one in present-day London with Rose who collects lost treasures. These two share ‘a wonderful and terrible link’ according to the publishers in what they describe as a ‘haunting tale of identity, love and independence’. If Orphans of the Carnival is only half as good as Jamrach’s Menagerie it will be well worth your time.

That’s it for September. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested.