Book Review: Orphans of the Carnival, Carol Birch (2016)

November 11th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Fell a little short of my expectations.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for ableist language.)

She heard a wag in the audience say, “It’s a chimpanzee in a dress!”

Someone shouted, “Loup garou!” She laughed. Her eyes twinkled, her smile was genuine. Now that she was on, she didn’t feel so bad. I’m looking at you, she thought. You are looking at me. And you’re paying.

Funny. After all this time he could still get lost in looking, just looking at her. Marie didn’t have that. Her face, though hairy enough, was completely human. With Julia, you did wonder.

Julia Pastrana was a singer/dancer/musician/actress/all-around performer who lived in the 19th century. The details of her early life are sketchy. An indigenous Mexican born in a small village in the state of Sinaloa in 1834, Julia was raised in the household of Pedro Sanchez, who briefly served as the governor of Sinaloa. Here she was trained as a mezzo soprano and dancer, and also became fluent in Spanish, English, and French, in addition to her native Cáhita. In 1854, she was sold to Francisco Sepúlveda, a customs official in Mazatlán, and was brought to America, where she toured under the management of J.W. Beach and Theodore Lent. She and Lent eloped not long after, and they toured Europe together. Their first baby was born in Moscow in March 1860, but lived only three days. Julia died five days later of “postpartum complications.”

Julia was born with a rare genetic condition called generalized hypertrichosis lanuguinosa, which caused thick black hair to grow all over her body, as well as severe gingival hyperplasia, which resulted in an overdeveloped jaw and thickened lips and gums. She was variously billed as a “Bear Woman”; a human-ape hybrid; and the offspring of an orangutan and a human.

After Julia’s death, Lent arranged to have his wife and son’s bodies preserved by Professor Sukolov of Moscow University. He displayed the mummies in a glass cabinet and toured with their remains for years. Lent found another woman with features similar to Julia’s and remarried. He reinvented Mrs. Theodore Lent: Version 2.0 as Zenora Pastrana, sister of the late Julia Pastrana, and added her to the tour. The show made him a wealthy man. He may or may not have been committed to an asylum in Russia, where he died in 1884.

As for Julia and Theodore Junior’s remains, they continued to be displayed until the 1970s, when public distaste forced them into storage. Vandals broke in in 1976 and mutilated the baby’s body. Julia’s remains were stolen in 1979, but eventually wound up at the Oslo Forensic Institute. In 2013, thanks in part to the current governor of Sinaloa, Julia’s remains were returned to her home state for burial.

Loosely based on the facts in some areas, more faithfully in others, Carol Birch tries to imagine what Pastrana’s life – especially her adulthood, and her marriage to Lent in particular – might have been like. Wherever she went, Julia was both celebrated and reviled; even as crowds flocked to see her, medical “authorities” warned against the damage her “hideous” face might inflict on children and pregnant women. She worked hard to cultivate her talent – dancing, singing, playing the guitar, even writing and performing in her own comedic plays – yet, at the end of the day, it was all moot: she could just stand there in silence, and people would still pay to see her. She was intelligent and personable, yet struggled to rise above her “bestial” appearance and the prejudices that accompanied it. She never wanted for social engagements, yet often found that she was the entertainment.

Julia’s marriage to Theodore is a focal point of the story. Could it really have been love, or was it just a marriage of convenience? As a reader, I rooted for Julia; I wanted hers to be a happy story, even if the ending was tragic. (Why couldn’t someone love ‘a face like that’? Huh? ) Yet Birch resists romanticizing their relationship, which is a relief since to do so would fly in the face of the facts. (See, e.g., Lent’s treatment of his wife and son’s corpses, and his second marriage to a Julia clone.) Instead she characterizes Lent’s interest in Julia as a mix of self-interest (financial gain; fame and reputation; showing up his more successful family members), genuine feelings of friendship, and a taboo sexual attraction that’s ultimately a source of shame and distress for Lent. But don’t be fooled: mostly it’s about the money.

For her part, Julia genuinely loves Lent, though it’s impossible to see why: he’s a simpering, self-interested phony who bosses Julia around and exploits her for gain.

On its face, Orphans of the Carnival seems like a book I should love. I have an affinity for stories set in the circus/carnival, and am fascinated with the idea of “freaks”: born freaks vs. made freaks; the social construction of freakery, and how ideas about what constitutes a freak have changed over time; the psychological and sociological aspects of “abnormality”; you name it. Yet the writing just didn’t resonate with me, for various reasons:

– Instead of chapters, the story is told in three large parts (New World/ Old World/ Next World), with line breaks to delineate changes in action or scenes. Only most of the breaks were missing from the ARC. Now I know that we’re not supposed to hold spelling/grammatical/formatting issues against ARCs – and usually I’m pretty good about this – but it really disrupted the flow of the story for me. I tried to ignore it, I really did, but I’m not making any promises. (No doubt this will be fixed in the finished version, fwiw.)

– The story is told from the perspectives of various characters, most notably Julia and Lent. Consequently, we’re “treated” (sarcasm much?) to pages upon pages of Lent’s inner monologues, which are sleazy and gross and will leave you wanting a hot shower with a Lysol chaser. I would’ve much preferred the story be told in Julia’s voice and Julia’s voice alone. Not only would this have given us a clearer picture of her as a person, but it would have left us wondering – as did she, perhaps – whether Lent actually loved her, or just loved possessing her.

– I never really felt like I got a handle on any of the characters (except maybe for Lent; insert retching noises here), especially Julia. She is so confusing! She decides to leave Sinaloa and tour (really the facts suggest she was sold, like a slave; the story paints her as more of an independent woman) so that she can be financially independent…but then she doesn’t want to think about money, because boring! She loathes how bossy and controlling her managers are…so she decides to make one her husband. Lent only proposes to her when she considers dropping him as a manager…so she agrees, even though it’s clearly a power play born of desperation. I don’t get it. I had an easier time wrapping my head around Zenora, even though she got much less space than Julia.

– I really didn’t see the significance of the whole Rose plot line, though I must admit that the big reveal with the island of the dolls was kind of neat and maybe even squeezed a tear or two out of me.

Overall, the story has a lot of promise, but fell a little short for me. Still, the historical details are interesting, and I enjoyed how Birch filled in some of the gaps with her own artistic flourishes.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Orphans of the Carnival is loosely based on the life of Julia Pastrana, an Indigenous Mexican woman. She was born in Sinaloa in 1834, with a rare genetic condition called generalized hypertrichosis lanuguinosa, which caused thick black hair to grow all over her body, as well as severe gingival hyperplasia, which resulted in an overdeveloped jaw and thickened lips and gums. She toured the United States and Europe, both solo and with carnivals, and was variously billed as a “Bear Woman”; a human-ape hybrid; and the offspring of an orangutan and a human. She married one of her managers, Theodore Lent, in 1854. Their first baby was born in Moscow in March 1860, but he lived only three days. Julia died five days later of “postpartum complications.”

Julia’s replacement, a girl named Marie Bartel, is a bearded woman from Karlsbad. In his old age, Lent went “crazy” and was committed to an asylum in Moscow, where he died.

When (the fictional) Julia first comes to America, she stays with her manager, Mr. Rates. He manages several other “freaks,” including Cato, a black “pinhead” who ran away from an Alabama plantation; Jonsy, “a White Negro”; Ted, the “Rubber-Skinned Man”; Myrtle Dexter, who is missing both arms; and Delia Mounier, who is missing both legs.

The Doctor who tells Julia her fortune and gives her a love potion is “a tall gray-bearded African man.” He was kidnapped from his homeland and brought to America as a slave, but managed to buy his freedom.

One of Rates’ servants (slaves? it’s unclear), Charlotte, is “a bony mulatto girl of about twelve.” There’s also a black cook.

Rose is described as brown-skinned on more than one occasion. That, along with her hair “that stood out all around her head, thick, black and wiry,” led me to believe that she’s black. Rose is also likely a hoarder, and frequent dumpster diver. She dies when a link in her Christmas decorations comes undone, causing it to fall on a lit candle. Her flat burns around Rose as she naps on the couch. Rose’s lover Laurie is also likely black (or brown-skinned, anyway).

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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