Among the Wonderful
This beautifully written literary novel takes us inside the strange, claustrophobic world of P.T. Barnum’s Museum of Wonders – that is, strange animals and even stranger humans – in 1840s New York. Carlson unfolds the stories of her two protagonists – an eight foot tall giantess and an elderly taxidermist – in alternating sections, which read almost like separate interleaved novellas because she chooses not to bring the two together at all until the surprising and moving climax. An equally odd choice is that Barnum, himself, is almost entirely absent from the book (and when he does finally appear is rather one-dimensional).
The taxidermist, Emile Guillaudeu, is an unhappy widower who has devoted his life and skills to rendering nature and making it comprehensible to ordinary folk. But he finds, to his dismay, that his devotion to science is scorned by the crassly exhibitionistic Barnum. However, the novel really belongs to Ana, who speaks to us in the first person. Loathing herself and those who pay to gawk at her, in constant pain, and living under the shadow of an early death, she is, nevertheless, insightful, good-hearted, full of dark humor, and, at the end, selflessly heroic. This novel explores the antitheses of reality and illusion, normal and abnormal, spectator and spectacle. It will give readers much to think about and leave them with indelible impressions of a (thankfully) vanished world.