Carol Birch’s novel, Orphans of the Carnival, follows the short, strange life of nineteenth century performer, Julia Pastrana. Pastrana sang and danced on stages from New Orleans to St. Petersburg, Russia, but she was most known for her appearance: Pastrana had hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia (diagnosed in the twentieth century). Birch puts us into the head of this lonely woman, showing us how alienated her appearance might have made her feel from the rest of humanity. This is an affecting but strange read.
We meet Julia as she is on her way from Sinaloa, Mexico to New Orleans. A stage manager has promised to make her a star, though he doesn’t explain quite how. Julia knows she is a very good singer and dancer and it isn’t until she reaches New Orleans that she realizes she will be exhibited (for lack of a better word) with other “curiosities.” Outside of performances and when she’s at the boarding house with her fellow performers, Julia wears an opaque view to avoid the gaze of others.
We follow Julia’s career as she becomes an international star in the 1850s, through various ups and downs. Later, we also get the perspective of her manager-turned-husband, Theo. These chapters are a sharp antidote to Julia’s persistent hope of love and friendship. Though he spends hours with Julia, he can never forget that her appearance is, to most people, monstrous. Birch also adds very short chapters set in modern London. The reason for these chapters is not revealed until the very end. To be honest, I didn’t think the payoff was worth the mystery.
The denouement of Orphans of the Carnival details the macabre end of Pastrana’s story. Even though Wikipedia will tell readers what happened, I don’t entirely want to give it away here. Suffice to say, Pastrana is even further dehumanized, just as she was in the early part of her career when her manager would take her to various doctors and scientists to learn just “what” she was. Given that this was before we understood genetics and evolution, some of the theories are horrifyingly callous.
I read most of Orphans of the Carnival without realizing that Julia Pastrana was an actual historical figure. Prior to this novel, I knew that people with hypertrichosis (a variety of genetic conditions that causes unusual hair growth) were sought out and exhibits in circuses and “freak shows” all through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Learning that Pastrana was real added a keen poignance to this book. I already sympathized with her because of her isolation, but knowing she was real just made my heart ache all the more for her.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 8 November 2016.