CHURCH OF MARVELS
By Leslie Parry
Two Roads/ Paperback/320 pages/ $29.95/ Major bookstores/4.5/5
Once upon a time, circuses were magical. Before those in search of entertainment considered animal rights or became glued to CGI- animated action sequences on cellphones, they flocked to circuses and thrilled to the sight of exotic wild tigers jumping through fiery hoops or elephants riding a bicycle. They sat in jaw-dropping amazement as acrobats on a high wire pushed the limits of the human body in seemingly effortless aerial feats.
The awe and wonder associated with circuses as well as the painstaking hours of preparation that go into creating moments of magic in the ring have inspired books just as unforgettable as the experience of watching a circus - or as unforgettable as it would be if audiences today were not jaded by the martial and gymnastic capabilities of CGI characters.
Angela Carter's Nights At The Circus (1984) contrasted the ethereal aerial gyrations of an acrobat to her earthy reality, Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants (2006) explored the bonds between performers in a struggling circus, while Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus (2012) was a dream-like fantasy about two magicians who compete with each other by adding ever more spectacular acts to a travelling show.
But circuses are falling out of favour and almost out of sight as sources of entertainment in real life as well as fiction, it seems.
A new young adult novel by debut author Cassie Beasley, Circus Mirandus, released in June, captures the dilemma of circus performers and artists who wish to create a world of wonder for their audience.
How can this be done when society breeds cynics younger each year and even children do not wish to be dazzled without also spotting the hidden rabbit in the hat, the prosaic solution at the heart of the seeming miracle?
The author has pulled off the almost impossible trick of generating all the anticipation and excitement and atmosphere of being at the circus without actually focusing on a single acrobatic or clownish act
The trick that American author Leslie Parry uses in Church Of Marvels, her debut novel, is to layer illusion on decoy, on bluff, and thus create a story where nothing is quite as it seems.
Each and every character plays more than one part, starting with a pair of gifted twin sisters, Belle and Odile, performers in their mother's circus on the sideshow haven of Coney Island towards the end of the 19th century.
The book begins with the end of the show. The circus is ravaged by a mysterious fire, the purring tigers that drew frightened crowds are dead and Odile struggles to make a living as assistant to an ageing knife-thrower after the death of her mother and disappearance of her sister, the headline act.
Odile's journey to mainland New York to find Belle parallels the stories of two others desperately seeking escape from unendurable circumstances. Sylvan is a night-soil collector and orphan with no clue about his birth family and the added baggage of a baby he finds one night at work.
Alphie has been abandoned by her husband and her mother- in-law, who despises Alphie's origins as a street-walker and make-up artist, has packed her off to an asylum on Blackwell's Island.
It is obvious that these charac- ters' paths will cross, just as one knows a magician's assistant locked into a cupboard will disappear, but Parry pulls the wool neatly over the reader's eyes for most of this tightly wrought book.
Only in the final 100 pages do seemingly loose plot threads snap into place and create a net tight enough to catch an acrobat falling from the tallest height.
Each revelation is adroitly foreshadowed, clues masquerading as necessary and intriguing background in this lush but tightly written book that belches the fumes and smog of 19th-century New York, complete with back-room sweatshops, opium dens and women sidestepping social expectations of gender - the mother of Odile and Belle dresses as a boy to fight in the war that claimed her brother, for example.
This is one of many deceptions in the book, not just the author's to confound the reader but also those of the characters who play roles for pleasure or profit or just to fit in: Alphie trying her best to be a good, demure wife according to the lights of her Italian mother- in-law, and failing; Odile, the lesser performer, trying in vain to take her sister's place in the spotlight.
To say more would be to spoil the plot and ruin the experience for the new reader and Church Of Marvels is worth enjoying unspoilt.
The author has pulled off the almost impossible trick of generating all the anticipation and excitement and atmosphere of being at the circus without actually focusing on a single acrobatic or clownish act.
If you like this, read: The Gods Of Gotham by Lyndsey Faye (2012, Headline, $17.0, Books Kinokuniya), a ripping yarn about the origins of New York's police force that plunges readers into the heart of a disturbing underworld of corrupt politicians, gang leaders and violent criminals.