Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

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A ravishing first novel set in the vibrant, tumultuous underworld of late-19th-century New York, about four young outsiders whose lives become entwined over the course of one fateful night.

New York City, 1895, the island of Manhattan is a melting pot of culture, much like modern day NYC, without the seedier aspects being swept underground and exploited as ‘niche’ to those who wish to indulge. My great great great grandfather, David Saqui, was in Manhattan around this time, the son (and black sheep) of Italian-Cuban parents, working as a singing waiter. I know he grew up on Chelsea’s ‘golden mile’ in an apartment above his father’s cigar and port wine shop. So, this era of life in New York has always fascinated me. Set during the Gilded Age, this is the city from an outsider’s point of view.

It is on a warm night that Sylvan Threadgill, a young night soiler finds a newborn baby girl whilst cleaning out the privies behind the tenements. An orphan himself, Sylvan takes pity on the baby and is determined to find out where she belongs. Odile Church is part of a sideshow act in a circus that has long lost its magic. She and her twin sister, Belle, were raised on the stage, performing in their mother’s theatre, the Church of Marvels. The theatre burns to the ground, and their mother, Friendship Church, perishes along with it, and Belle escapes to Manhattan. Alphie wakes up in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum, the last thing she remembers is blood on the floor and her Italian mother-in-law screaming. She had once been a prostitute and a penny-Rembrandt, cleaning up drunken revelers, but now she’s the wife of Anthony, an undertaker from a respectable home. Belle was committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors, Alphie knows this young woman harbours a dark secret that will alter the course of both of their lives…

Leslie Parry offers a tight-knit cast of characters, luckless and destitute, and striving for acceptance, whether it is in love, in their profession or in society. She shows us the secret worlds of children living in the gutters and tunnels, underage prostitutes, the filthy tenements on the Lower East Side and the regular haunts of misfits. Her knowledge of the streets, the undergrounds and the shortcuts throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, is impressive. Each twist and turn, the rattling of the carriages, the stench of the river and the hustle and bustle of Coney Island, leaves us breathless. The freaks of the circus, the language of the guttersnipes, the imagined scenarios and flashbacks, are crass and startling. As is the barbaric treatment of the inmates of Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum, and the desperation of unmarried, pregnant women, suffering shame and selling their babies.

Expertly written and jarringly realistic to the plight of the misfit, Church of Marvels will stay with you long after the show is over.

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