Church of Marvels

  • By Leslie Parry
  • Ecco
  • 308 pp.

Quirky, colorful characters inhabit this delightful novel set in late-19th-century New York City.

In her richly rendered debut novel, Church of Marvels, Leslie Parry comes close to making her readers’ eyes water from the stench of the outhouses and open-air abattoirs, the crush of livestock and unwashed crowds, and the overall grit and grime of 1895 New York City. Her vivid description of daily life among the underclass and outcasts of the Lower East Side and Blackwell Island’s asylum may make you feel the need for a shower to scrub off the dirt. Oh, but then you’ll be back to soak up more of Parry’s delicious language.

The title refers to a Coney Island sideshow theater run by Friendship Willingbird Church (or Bird), a young woman who has always led an unconventional life. She started early by passing herself off as a boy so she could fight for the Union Army and avenge her brother’s death. Unconventional is definitely the byword in this tale of folks who, at best, are at the very edge of society, if not firmly latched onto the underbelly.

The prologue is delivered by Bird’s daughter Belle, the headliner of the show, loved by the crowds for her beauty, showmanship, and utter fearlessness. We immediately learn from Belle that the theater has burned down, Bird is dead, and that Belle herself has run off to the big city, leaving her twin sister Odile behind. Just in case that isn’t enough mystery to unravel, Belle also mentions she no longer has a tongue: “I’ve stared at it in my own cupped hands, stiff and bloody and fuzzed with white, gruesomely curled as if around a scream.” Finally, she explains that the upcoming story is not about her, but rather about how her actions and decisions have affected other people. She is true to her word: we don’t hear Belle’s voice again until the epilogue.

Instead, the novel follows three primary characters who are not immediately connected to each other, but whose threads become increasingly intertwined as the story unfolds. One, of course, is Odile, whose slight handicap keeps her forever in a supporting role to her star sister. Nevertheless, the two have always been inseparable until Belle runs off (not long after Bird’s death), leaving a two-sentence note on the kitchen table. When an alarming letter finally arrives three months later, Odile decides to make off after Belle, even though she has no clear idea where to look.

The second major player is Sylvan Threadgill, a man whose origin is a mystery even to himself. As a young boy, he was taken in by the family who found him living in their cellar, and years later, when they are all carried off by a citywide wave of consumption, he picks up odd jobs in between underground prize fights. One of those odd jobs is as a night soiler who slops out the street privies. When we meet Sylvan, he has just found a baby abandoned in the muck that he is shoveling.

Alphie, the third character, is the biggest mystery. Who is she? Why has she apparently been hauled off by her mother-in-law and thrown into a women’s asylum? Where is her husband in all of this? And how does she connect to the rest of the story?

There are many questions big and small to be answered throughout the book, and virtually every character has a secret to protect. Parry has woven an inventive and ingenious plot that carries the story along and builds to a fine level of suspense. A few plot points strain credulity, but in the main it hangs together very well.

My only complaint is that at times it felt as though character was being sacrificed to plot. The characters were interesting enough that I, for one, wanted to know them better. Parry does, however, paint an empathetic picture of how difficult life was for those who by nature, choice, or circumstance did not conform to convention in a rigid society.

In the best sense, this book cries out to be made into a movie; the richness of visual and aural detail is practically screen-ready: “Knitting needles tsked from unseen hands,” “a dimpled chin like a pat of butter someone had stuck their thumb in,” “eyes bulging like two boiled eggs from their sockets.”

She describes Odile’s crooked neck and spine, saying, “As a girl, she’d been made to wear a brace, a horrible thing like a metal corset, with a tin collar that trumpeted up her neck and flared beneath her chin. She looked like some kind of Elizabethan monster, clanking down the boardwalk in the ocean fog.”

Parry has fully imagined the Church of Marvels nestled in the quirky seaside carnival that was Coney Island, a world away by ferry from the wretchedness of a city summer. Church of Marvels is just the book to accompany any reader who has plunked down in a beach chair, toes in the sand, ready to be transported to another world.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel was published by Apprentice House on 28 April 2015. Up the Hill to Home tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, between the Civil War and the Great Depression.

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