Church of Marvels

Written by Leslie Parry
Review by Geoffrey Harfield

This is a book of hate and violence. Starting in a fairground on New York’s Coney Island in 1895, a mother and her girl children face problems, and a new-born baby is found in a night-soil tub.

I have never come across a book so full of hatred, filth, death, injury and deceit. It is disturbing that such a well-written story as Church of Marvels should be so gruellingly upsetting and extremely harrowing. Should I condemn it because of this? The most remarkable part of this book is the tremendous amount of reminiscence. The main character, whoever she is at the time, continually sees things around her that bring to mind events and people. There is almost no dialogue.

Large parts are incomprehensible, with female names for males and the reverse. Sylvan is a boy, Alphie is a tart, and we have a large number of teenage girls in an asylum who do nothing but rant and hurt each other, as they are disciplined by the nurses.

The main element of the story is the thoughts and reminiscences of Odile, following her upbringing in the circus and her traumatic times in the streets of Manhattan. The author describes in colourful, smelly horror all the passions of her characters’ lives. By the middle of the book, conversations between circus performers in trouble take over from the lengthy descriptions of low-life, but the story is still being told, not shown, and we soon revert to a lengthy narrative.

There is a hint of a love story towards the end, and a mention of the Civil War, but most of the book is a straightforward account of the degradation of life in late 19th-century New York.