Orphans of the Carnival

Orphans of the Carnival: A Novel - Carol Birch

[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley.]

This novel is based on the story of Julia Pastrana, a perforrmer and "freak" who lived in the 19th century; more than the typical "woman with a beard", Julia was covered in hair, and had a facial condition that made her look like an ape. Throughout the story, we get to see here leave her hometown and the house where she had lived, to perform with a troupe, then with independent managers. More than a mere attraction, Julia sang and danced beautifully, something other characters find both fascinating and troubling: after all, is she really a human being, or merely an animal?

I found this attraction mixed with revulsion fascinating, for all the questions it raised. Most of the story is told from Julia's point of view, and there's no doubt she's a human being, period, with her own thoughts, feelings, dignity, and desires in life. She may appear as a little passive at first (her fellow performers have to remind her to get a contract, not just take everything her manager send her way, and she let herself be prodded by doctors and scientists), but she reveals herself quickly as full of willpower: leaving the people she's always known for the big unknown, and especially accepting her condition as something normal, something that's part of her, while making use of skills that, in about everybody, would certainly garner admiration (singing, dancing, playing the guitar, acting). There's some contradiction in her character, true; on the other hand, this is just part of the human condition—so many of us are creatures of contradiction.

But the world isn't so kind to her, and while a lot of people are ready to pay just to see her, or are her friends (Ezra, Friederike...), some others don't hesitate to criticise her, judge her as amoral, or as an abnormality that should be kept under lock and not shown to people. This definitely raises the matter of the "freaks" (Victorian period) and how they were perceived, not to mention what may easily be forgotten: that those people were, well, people first. In this way, the novel can be shocking—thus reflecting a very Victorian feeling, with "well-thinking people" judging those who're different, while at the same time never judging themselves for gawking. (Also, there's the matter of Theo's decision later.)

This highlighted the tragedy of Julia's life: people came to see her, but less for her skills than for her appearance. She was invited to social gatherings, but less for her personality than for others to "see the freak". People talked about her relationship, but less out of happiness for the couple than to whisper in their backs about "does he does it with -that-?" It was all very sad, all the more because Julia can never free herself from her appearance, which in turns is limiting (she can't go out without a veil, for instance, and in spite of travelling a lot, she doesn't get to really see that many places).

Theo, well... Theo was less interesting. Mostly his character was of a mercantile quality (and at least he's honest about that), and there was never any mystery about the part money/fame played in their relationship. Still, when things were told from his point of view, they never seemed as rich and interesting as when they were from Julia's.

Julia's story would have been a 3/4 stars. However, a few things prevented me from really enjoying it. First, Theo's voice (as said, not very enthralling, especially when it dealt with his ambiguous feelings for her); I kept thinking that I would've wanted to see this relationship told only through Julia's eyes, perhaps because there would've been more than a seed of wondering whether he truly loved her or just took advantage of the situation? Hard to tell. Also, the fact that Julia doesn't stay that long with other performers, and apart from a couple of encounters with Ezra, Berniece and Cato later, mostly everything revolves around Julia and Theo, therefore: not much potential for various interactions.

Finally, the Rose narrative: I disliked that one, none of the characters were particularly appealing, and that story was only connected by a lose thread to Julia's. I had expected something more... intense? More closely related? The way it was, it brought nothing to Julia's story, and in the end my only feeling was "why did I bother reading those parts?"

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. Julia's narrative didn't need to be bogged down by Rose's.