Sympathy for Outsiders: Leslie Parry’s CHURCH OF MARVELS

Article by liz

by Liz Wright

I cried tears of joy halfway through Leslie Parry’s CHURCH OF MARVELS. To tell you why, though, I’d have to spoil the best reveal in the book. And trust me when I say that this is a book full of wonderful, tangled reveals. And the greatest thing about it? Everything, absolutely everything, is connected.

Where to begin? CHURCH OF MARVELS is historical fiction, set in liminal places: 1895, the end of one century and the beginning of another; the tenement slums and immigrant neighborhoods and underworlds of Manhattan; the smoky, eerie world of Coney Island sideshows; the barren hell of a women’s lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island. It’s a book about sisters, parents, children. It’s a book about being abandoned and lost. It’s a book about leaving your home and plunging into a dangerous new world, searching for someone who’s left you, who you want to be, who may not exist at all.

Our four main characters take center stage in turns. Odile and Belle are twin sisters, sharing a crescent-shaped birthmark in mirroring places behind their ears. They act and work in their mother’s Coney Island show, the titular Church of Marvels, with the attractions and headliners who make up their cast of marvels. Sylvan Threadgill is a night-soiler, digging privies in the dead of night, a prize fighter and lonely soul who wants better. Alphie wakes up in an insane asylum, surrounded by dead-eyed women and cruel nurses, and can’t remember how she got there. I would say the book begins with a fire, one that drives Odile and Belle into Manhattan’s twisting and tangled underworld, but that’s not quite accurate. The book begins with Sylvan digging out a privy and finding a newborn baby girl in the muck. But that’s not quite right, either. There is a prologue, a voiceless woman deciding to tell her story, and she launches us into this spiraling, singularly crafted story.

Every event in CHURCH OF MARVELS holds meaning for every other event. Four disparate stories— two sideshow sisters, one lonely night-soiler, and an abandoned woman in a lunatic asylum—weave together, one thread crossing another, then the first diverging to a third, while the fourth and second threads have a chance to meet. It’s a book that requires some detective work on the reader’s part, paying attention to tiny subtle clues that become huge later, once the other characters arrive on the scene to fill in the whole story. Nothing is simple in this book. Everyone has a chance to grow, to slowly unfold their full stories and let the other characters shine a new light on them.

As interconnected as these stories and places are, every character carries the sense of being an outsider. Each of our characters comes from a singular world, and as they explore dangerous new places, they track in traces of their former lives, leaving sandy footprints in the slums, or dragging bright smears of paint into the bleakness of the asylum. As our outsiders cross paths and come together, a curious thing happens: they help and trust each other. I’m jaded; I’m not used to people helping each other out without looking for an in, a catch, especially in a book as tumultuous as this. But that’s one of the things that author Leslie Parry insists on, which becomes the real strength of the book: a sympathy for the outsider’s point of view, for the people who live on the fringes, the people of the unusual and non-normative.

None of the major characters in CHURCH OF MARVELS are “normal,” by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re never ridiculed or seen as anything less than full people. Odile and Belle’s fellows in their mother’s show—Georgette with her four legs, Leland the dwarf, and the split-gendered Aldovar—are their family, respected and loved as much as their mother. Sylvan and Alphie’s harder choices, forced upon them by poverty and desperate circumstances, are never shown as immoral or anything but sympathetic.

Which brings me back to when I cried. Like I said, I don’t want to ruin the moment in the book, so there’s not too much I can say, but at the same time I want to tell everyone in the world this book does this thing so beautifully, it’s so good, it makes me so happy. If you don’t want to be spoiled, just take my word that it’s great and skip to the next paragraph. If you don’t mind, here: about halfway through, one of the characters comes out as transgender. It happens seamlessly, flawlessly, in their own narration, and it’s done well. I love the trans people in my life very deeply, and I so rarely see their stories told this well, giving them this much fully-rounded humanity and treating their lives with this much compassion, without misgendering them, making them the butt of a joke, or ending the story with them miserable in a gutter, dying of consumption.

The deft, sympathetic, and genuine way in which this reveal happens is emblematic of CHURCH OF MARVELS’ entire attitude towards outsiders and the different: Of course their stories are worth telling. Of course these people exist, of course their stories are fascinating, of course they would want to live and fight and be loved. They might be your neighbors, the man on the corner, the girl in the next room; they might be the people you’d never expect. Parry’s talent makes these people’s stories—normal and everyday in their own right—into the extraordinary. Of course there are tigers on the beach. Of course there are dancing devils and contortionists and sword-swallowers. Of course there are heroes hidden in the most unlikely places.

Of course, Leslie Parry tells us, there are marvels.

Church of Marvels: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062367556
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Ecco - May 5th, 2015

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