The prologue of Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels might lead you to think that it’s the story of Belle Church, a sword-swallower and contortionist. (Readers who cheat and jump to the end of the book and scope out of the epilogue will end up thinking the same.) In reality, Church of Marvels is about five people whose lives collide in the most astonishing and horrific ways. The five people couldn’t have known that their choices would throw them together or cost so much pain, but by the end, one can’t help but wonder if it was all supposed to work out this way.
Odile Church is Belle’s twin sister. After their mother’s death and the destruction of the Church of Marvels, where the family and their employees performed, Belle disappeared. Odile made a living in another circus-like show for a few months until her worry over her sister drove her from Coney Island to Manhattan, Belle’s last known location. Early 1890s New York is no place for anyone to be on their own, especially not a woman. As Odile takes the ferry to New York, Sylvan Threadgill discovers an infant girl in a privy. Sylvan blows off his shift as a night-soil man to save the baby. He leaves her with a friend while he tries to find out what happened to the mother. Meanwhile, Alphie has been sent to Blackwell’s Island Asylum* by, presumably, her evil mother-in-law.
For the first third of the book, it’s hard to see how these disparate characters are connected. Who is Alphie? What does she have to do with the Church twins? How did she end up at Blackwell’s? Will Sylvan find the mother? Is the mother Alphie or, perhaps, Belle? Around the half-way point of Church of Marvels, everything starts to coalesce. Revelation follows revelation and mysteries I didn’t even realize were mysteries were solved. I was stunned at the layers to these characters and their stories.
Church of Marvels is slow to start. Though it’s only 320 pages, I think some of the exposition at the beginning of the book could have been trimmed—especially the parts in which we are told more than shown what’s happening. The last half of the book is so good, however, that I can’t think of a good enough adjective to use. The ending of Church of Marvels is absolutely beautiful.
That said, Church of Marvels is also the kind of book I will have to be careful about recommending to people. The story goes to some very dark places. The night when Alphie met Belle, for example, is ghastly. I’m glad that Parry chose to reveal it slowly, as Alphie’s memory starts to return. The book would have seemed completely outrageous instead of poignantly horrific, if I might be allowed to put those two words in such close conjunction. Church of Marvels is for brave readers. Fitting, given how brave Odile, Belle, Sylvan, and Alphie have to be.
Now, I have to stop writing because I’m afraid I’ll start to give things away about the plot. Church of Marvels is brilliant—to me, anyway—because it surprised me so many times. None of the twists were gratuitous; they all felt right and ended up explaining earlier events. Usually I can pick up on unreliable narrators and lies by omission, but Parry fooled me. And I loved it.
I was given a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
* Interestingly enough, Blackwell’s Island Asylum is the same asylum where Nelly Bly went undercover to investigate inhumane practices. She ended up publishing Ten Days in a Mad-House about her experience in 1887.