The Nameless Ones, by John Connolly

I’ve been dipping in and out of the Charlie Parker series for years, ever since I picked up the first book in the series, Every Dead Thing. Since that book came out in 1999, John Connolly has been building on the complexity of his haunted private investigator’s world by adding supernatural elements of pure evil beneath the more ordinary human variety of evil. Connolly has also created an amazing cast of characters with complex ethical codes that push them to eliminate both types of evil wherever they find it. In The Nameless Ones, the nineteenth volume in the series, we go on an international journey of revenge with two of Parker’s best friends and allies. Louis, an assassin known as the Grim Reaper, and his partner Angel, a thief, travel to Europe to take out a group of Serbians who took their own revenge so far that they must be put out of commission.

The Nameless Ones brings in a full complement of previous characters (although Parker himself and the always entertaining Fulci brothers only have a brief scene). Sadly, a character introduced in a recent installment of the series meets a grisly death—along with his family—in the first quarter of the novel. He and his family are tortured and killed by Spiridon Vuksan and his henchmen. Spiridon and his brother, Radovan, are evil men. They, unlike some of the other villains tackled by Parker et al., are motivated by greed and prejudice against anyone who isn’t a pure-blooded Serb. During the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Vuksans participated in the massacre at Srebrenica and countless other atrocities. After the war, they used Serbia and people still loyal to them to create a criminal empire that no one would touch. At least, that’s what they thought. Their act of bloody revenge in Amsterdam not only draws down the wrath of Angel and Louis, it also makes a lot of governments decide that the Vuksans are too dangerous to be protected anymore.

As Louis and Angel track their quarry from Amsterdam to Vienna, Connolly treats us to snippets of history about Josip Broz Tito and the terrible wars and atrocities that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia, how much it costs to get new passports and guns, high-level human smuggling in Western Europe, and some interesting tidbits about Serbian folk beliefs. There are also some amazing set pieces as Louis has to get creative with his methods when his targets seem to be completely safe in their hotels and when there are showdowns in dramatic corners of European cities, like the Friedhof der Namenlosen (German) or a once quiet restaurant in the Skadarlija district of Belgrade. The Nameless Ones is the kind of book I adore: entertainment mixed with history and travel.

If you’re looking for a mystery series that is completely original, deeply affecting, and never disappointing, I highly recommend the Charlie Parker series and this latest entry—as long as you have a strong stomach for violence.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Journeys, by Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig’s writing seems to be everywhere since The Grand Budapest Hotel came out. Zweig was an essayist, journalist, and short story writer who, sadly committed suicide in 1942 after being exiled from his native Austria in 1935. His sensitive writings don’t have quite the quirkiness fans of the Wes Anderson movie, but I have found them to be an incredible view into European life before World War II and World War I. In Journeys (excellently translated by Will Stone from the collection, Auf Reisen). I think this is the third or fourth collection of republished Zweig writings I’ve seen since 2014.

In Journeys, Zweig takes us along on his travels around western Europe from 1902 to 1939. The earliest essays (although feuilleton might be a better description of these short pieces of nonfiction) show us Ostend, Bruges, Avignon, Arles, Seville, London, and Antwerp before World War I, when the cities were summer vacation spots for the upper classes. Zweig attempts to capture the character of each place (Bruges felt isolated and somewhat melancholy, apparently) or reflect on how its history brought it from a major city to a backwater (Avignon).

After a gap from 1915-1917, the tone shifts. In one piece, “Requiem for a Hotel,” Zweig laments that an inn that has run since medieval times in Zürich has been turned into a tax office. In the next one, “Return to Italy,” Zweig grows even more nostalgic that the old ways of traveling and vacationing have been industrialized and lost much of their charm. While Zweig seems to find a few remaining pockets of local individuality in places like Dijon, he seems saddened by the fact that people are going to these amazing places simply to have been to those places rather than to experience them in the moment. Visiting the Louvre or the Leaning Tower of Pisa are seen by these tourists as box to tick rather than objects to marvel and ponder.

In the last two pieces, both sent in London and written in the late 1930s, Zweig gives us something completely different. Where the first essays were focused on relaxation and enchantment, it’s clear that war is not just coming to change everything again: war is already here. Reading from almost 80 years remove, we know what’s going to happen and can lament with Zweig that whatever vestiges of old Europe still remain might not last another terrible conflict. These pieces were also tough for me to read because I knew how Zweig’s own journey would end.

After reading Journeys, I think I would have loved to stroll the streets of pre-war Arles or look for medieval remnants in Antwerp or Seville with him as he occasionally pointed out a bit of history or asked a question about a city’s mood. Zweig never struck me as a lecturer. Instead, he’s a thoughtful man who sees cities as alive as he travels through them. I would definitely recommend this collection to readers who wonder what life was like in Europe before the wars. Even limited to paper, Zweig is a wonderful guide.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A postcard of Ostend (“The beach and the grand hotels”), c. 1915 (Image via Wikicommons)

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who are looking to practice mindful reading. This book is perfect.

Reckonings, by Mary Fulbrook

38819242In Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, Mary Fulbrook concentrates on the way that we—survivors, perpetrators, descendants, academics, non-academics, and so on—frame the Holocaust in our minds and our speech. Each of the three sections has a slightly different focus, but they all thoroughly discuss post-war silence, court proceedings, literature, museum exhibits, memorials, and conversation above all. I have to take my hat off to Fulbrook for tackling a topic that I would find impossible to write about. The atrocities of the Holocaust are such that the usual words—horrible, terrible, appalling, evil—don’t seem powerful enough to accurately describe what happened. But in Reckonings, she dives deep into the very question of how we do and do not talk about the holocaust.

Reckonings touches on so many topics that I wonder if it should have been broken down into two books: one on the court and legal history and the other focusing on psychology, literature, and memorialization. The first third and a lot of the second read like a traditional history, with some very astute arguments about the motivations of perpetrators who dodged justice after 1945. Because they are more typical of history writing, it’s easy to follow Fulbrook’s progression from Aktion T4 to the Holocaust to judgment in West Germany, East Germany, and Austria. Fulbrook argues that Aktion T4—the Nazi program of euthanizing or starving mentally ill patients or patients with congenital disabilities to death—served accustom ordinary Germans to the idea of killing “less desirable” members of their society. It was shockingly easy for leading Nazis to convince doctors and health workers (often Party members themselves) to kill their patients. There were protests from the relatives of the murdered, but only enough for the killers to stop for a while, resume their work, then transfer on to death camps across Europe.

After the war, West and East Germany vied against each other to be considered the toughest on the Nazis caught in their territory. Both fell short. In West Germany, the fact that many members of the judiciary had been Party members and the decision to use pre-Nazi law that had curious definitions of murder, combined with a pervasive attitude that members of the SS, the Wehrmacht, and the Nazi-era civil service should be lightly punished, if at all. Many mass murderers were acquitted or served insultingly short sentences. In East Germany, sentences were harsher, but many former Nazis walked free. Austria had the worst record of the three countries Fulbrook covers. Their record is so dismal that many prosecutors and survivors gave up pursing cases against former Nazis.

It’s only in the last third that I started to see what I thought was Fulbrook’s overall purpose. In that last third, Fulbrook points out that the way that anyone talks about the Holocaust reveals a lot about their attitudes toward what is arguably the worst thing that one group of humans has ever done to another. Unfortunately, this section has weaknesses. There are several sections where Fulbrook steps outside of her expertise as a historian to psychoanalyse the people she quotes. She has a better grip on literary analysis, but there are passages where I feel that Fulbrook does not have enough evidence for her claims. I much prefer it when an author lets their subjects speak for themselves, quoting enough of the primary sources that they unambiguously support the author’s suppositions.

Fulbrook does sterling work in Reckonings when it comes to victim groups that, for various reasons, are not often given much attention in most discussions of the Holocaust. She provides heartbreaking testimony from two gay men, one French and one German, who suffered horrific abuse but could not talk about what was done to them because homosexuality would be illegal until the 1960s and generally disapproved of for decades more. The Roma and Sinti also receive more attention from Fulbrook, especially in the overview of Holocaust memorials. Even decades after the war, there is still widespread prejudice in Central Europe against the Roma and Sinti.

Reckonings could do with lengthier quotes from primary sources and a bit more editing to root out some of Fulbrook’s pet phrases (“as we have seen”), but overall I found it to be a thoughtful exploration of why people talk about the Holocaust the way they do. She discusses the need for many survivors to not speak of what happened to them and the competing need for perpetrators to not implicate themselves. I was particularly interested in her careful dissections of how perpetrators and their descendants, when forced, dodge around the crimes committed during the Third Reich. Her analysis of how the Holocaust is framed in speech, writing, museum exhibits, court proceedings, and so on was definitely needed. It’s not just enough to talk about the Holocaust. We, as a society, have to think more about how we can talk about the Holocaust in a just way, in a way that hopefully fulfills the prayer of “never again.”

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.

The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason

37946436If Gavrilo Princip had not fired the shot that started World War I, Lucius Krzelewski would have had to slowly make his way through the ranks of the endless Austro-Hungarian medical bureaucracy to become a doctor. Instead, he enlists as a medical lieutenant and is shipped to a field hospital somewhere in the Carpathian mountains. The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, follows him from his days as a student to the hospital to the end of the war, as he grows from the textbook definition of a callow youth into an emotionally battered field surgeon.

Lucius, when we first meet him, is the privileged youngest son of an aristocratic family living in Vienna. He doesn’t know how to make small talk. He definitely doesn’t know how to talk to women (including his mother). He stutters under pressure. The only thing that brings him pleasure is scientific observation. Medical school is pure joy for him, once he finally convinces his parents to send him and pay his tuition. Study does start to wear a bit thin when he realizes that the extremely stratified bureaucracy above him means that he will barely be allowed in the same room as patients for ages. It doesn’t take much wheedling from his closest friend to encourage him to enlist when war breaks out.

Because the Austro-Hungarian Army is desperate for anyone with any kind of medical knowledge, Lucius is readily accepted and sent to a field hospital near the Eastern Front. On arrival, Lucius learns that all of the previous doctors and medical personnel are dead or fled. The only one who knows anything about medicine is a nursing sister called Margarete. Without her, it’s a wonder anyone would have survived either in Lucius’ hands or during the doctor interregnum. There are scenes in the first half of the book that reminded me strongly of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which is based on the life of Mikhail Bulgakov who found himself in a similar situation as an untested doctor in a remote part of the Soviet Union. Lucius slowly becomes a competent surgeon and field doctor under Margarete’s roughly diplomatic tutelage.

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Patients and personnel at an Austro-Hungarian field hospital on the Austrian-Italian front.
(Image via Wikicommons)

In addition to Lucius’ growth, a major theme of The Winter Soldier is the growing problem of what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. One soldier, named Horvath, is the first case Lucius has a chance to observe in his field hospital. We never learn what Horvath saw, but his condition is so extremely debilitating that Lucius fights to keep him from being re-conscripted by a sadistic Austrian officer. At the time, “shell shock” was viewed as cowardice or malingering. Men with this condition were subject to horrific punishments and “treatments,” in order to get them back into the fight. Lucius’ intervention has awful consequences, deepening The Winter Soldier from bildungsroman to a more complicated portrait of a naïve man caught in the middle of a collapsing empire at war. His intervention also means that his romance with Margarete takes a sharp turn towards tragedy.

The Winter Soldier is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read about World War I. Characterization is fully-realized, which I appreciated. What I loved about this book, however, was the way Mason recreated the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its catastrophic end. The book highlights the divisions between the empire’s ethnic groups which became fracture lines by the end of the war. Many of the recruits did not speak German (the empire’s official language) well enough to follow officer’s orders. There are shortages of everything. Transportation is a mess. All of that comes through sharply through Lucius peripatetic attempts to find Margarete in the later half of the book.

I would strongly recommend this book to readers looking for a good read about World War I.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 11 September 2018.

The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak

9501104It might seem strange to begin and end a book about a soldier and a World War with mothers sacrificing themselves for their infant sons, the way Andrew Krivak does in The Sojourn. But these moments contrasts the lengths that a parent will go through to make sure their child lives against the willingness for politicians and generals to throw those lives away in the trenches of World War I.

Jozef Vinich’s mother threw him off a bridge when he was only a few months old to save him from being crushed by a train. After his mother’s sudden death and his father’s decline, Jozef moves back to the old country: Slovakia. It wasn’t Slovakia then. It wasn’t even Czechoslovakia. Jozef’s family’s bad luck lands him in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in time for him to be old enough to enlist in the army in 1916.

Jozef tells us his life story, from his days helping his father herd sheep in the mountains near what is now called Bratislava through the end of the war. Reading The Sojourn feels like sitting down with a grandparent to hear a war story that they’ve never told anyone. (In fact, that’s how this book is framed. Jozef is telling his story from 1972, so we know he survives the war.) Jozef tells us about his eagerness to leave his village and his hateful step-relatives and his excitement at becoming a scharfschütze, a sniper, for the Austro-Hungarian Army, with his adopted brother, Zlee.

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Undated photo of an Italian soldier on the Italian front. (Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.)

As snipers, Jozef and Zlee live charmed lives—at least until 1917 when their luck runs out. By the end of the war, the Austrian, Hungarian, and German forces were near spent. Supplies are scarce. The Italian and British soldiers they’re up against on the Italian Front seem endless. Their commanders have no idea what to do other than order pointless and costly last stands and charges. Frankly, it’s a miracle that Jozef survived.

When everything seems to be conspiring to kill Jozef, I kept thinking back to the beginning of the book when his mother dramatically saved his life and was killed by a train and the ending of the book, in which a young Roma woman sends her infant son with Jozef before she dies. These mothers want their children to live, in spite of all the odds against it. Their determination makes the casualties of World War I seem like an even bigger waste than they usually do. The trenches of the Western, Eastern, and Italian Fronts were full of mothers’ sons. Seeing so many of those sons die because of bad leadership and bad luck makes their mothers’ sacrifices just that much more tragic.

The Sojourn is a brief but deeply affecting read. Jozef’s narration of his miraculous story was so detailed that I felt like I was freezing and starving along with him in the Alps and the Dolomites. My heart was in my mouth whenever he had to face down Italian snipers or provide covering fire for his comrades against enemy machine guns. This is one of the best World War I novels I’ve read.

To Die in Spring, by Ralf Rothmann

In 1915, an iconic recruitment ad appeared in Britain in which a child asks, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” The ad was meant to shame men who didn’t join up and had nothing to tell. In reality, a lot of kids didn’t hear what their fathers did in either of the world wars because it was too horrifying or sad or made their fathers feel guilty. In To Die in Spring, by Ralf Rothmann (translated by Shaun Whiteside), a son asks his father to write down what he did during the last months of the war, after Walter Urban was forcibly recruited in to the Waffen-SS. Walter never does and his son never knows what his dad did. But we do.

After a short chapter in which Walter’s son describes his father’s post-war life and silence, we are taken back to the last months of World War II. Walter has managed to avoid being conscripted so far because he does essential work on a dairy farm in northwestern Germany. All this changes when, one night at a town party, the commander of a group of Waffen-SS makes it impossible for Walter and the other able-bodied men of the town to sit out the war any longer.

Walter lands a cushy gig after three weeks of basic training. He drives whatever truck they put in front of him so that he delivers injured men to hospitals, new troops to the ever retreating front, or supplies to wherever they’re needed. There’s a stark contrast between Walter, who is barely 17, and the soldiers who have been fighting for years. The soldiers who fought in Russia are brutal; Walter witnesses or hears about them committing more than one atrocity. I don’t think Walter had any illusions about the war, but he was rather isolated on his dairy farm. He still believes—at least at the beginning—in honor and duty. Walter might have been able to talk to his son about those months, if it weren’t for the act that scars him so deeply that he would rather spend most of his life not talking to his family than speak about.

Children who ask their parents or grandparents about their war experiences are never prepared for the rawness of the memories. Even children who’ve read about World War II, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War may not be ready to hear a first person account of killing another human being. And yet, one has to wonder if Walter had written down his experiences, he might have been able to come to terms with what his commanding officers had made him do.

To Die in Spring is one of the better novels I’ve read about World War II. It doesn’t feel as though the author was checking off genre tropes or deliberately trying to write a tearjerker. At times, I was reminded of  Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front by this novel’s bleak depiction of a defeated army that isn’t allowed to rest yet but desperately wants to stop.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. 

Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis

In physics, the “arrow of time” is a metaphor for time and entropy first coined in 1927 by Arthur Eddington. Eddington wrote:

Let us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past…This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone. I shall use the phrase ‘time’s arrow’ to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space. (Source)

This is true enough for reality as we understand it. Fiction, however, can do whatever the hell it wants. In Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis makes time run backwards from a man’s death to his birth. The narrator experiences the life of that man, Tod Friendly, backwards. For the narrator, it’s perfectly ordinary to see broken things repaired with a kick and chewed food returned whole to the plate. As the narrator travels back through Tod’s life, we learn the man’s secrets and discover a horror that is made all the worse because time is running in reverse.

We meet the narrator just at it discovers Tod. Tod has just returned to life after suffering a fatal coronary. The narrator is puzzled, just as we readers are, by the way the doctors fiddle with Tod by ripping out IVs and stuffing him back into his clothes before the paramedics whisk him away and deposit Tod back in his garden.

The narrator never twigs to the fact that time is running backwards, and why would it? It’s never experienced time any other way. So the narrator endures the discomfort of old age while Tod slowly grows younger. Relationships are particularly bewildering for the narrator, since they always start with fights, crying, and sex before a series of dates that end with Tod’s lover or girlfriend “pretending” not to know who Tod is.

For a long time, the narrator suffers as Tod practices as a physician. To the narrator’s point of view, doctoring is a ghastly profession:

Some guy comes in with a bandage around his head. We don’t mess about. We’ll soon have that off. He’s got a hole in his head. So what do we do? We stick a nail in it. Get the nail—a good rusty one—from the trash or wherever. And lead him out to the Waiting Room where he’s allowed to longer and holler for a while before we ferry him back out into the night. (76*)

According to the narrator, being a doctor involves hurting people while criminals can restore people to perfect health by punching them.

As Tod grows younger, the narrator notes that he sometimes changes his name. He moves back to the city from what we know to be his retirement home and changes his name. Then he sails to Europe and changes his name again. Then he travels to Italy and follows a series of trains to Poland and Germany, changing his name once more. In the last third of the book, we learn at least who Tod really is.

The last third of the book is also where the real horror begins. Because the narrator has been watching time in reverse (though it doesn’t realize it), it sees healing, care, then injury. When we learn that Tod used to be Odilo, an Austrian who worked as a doctor for the SS, the narrator believes that Odilo is reanimating dead people after creating them from mud and smoke. I have read a lot of Holocaust fiction, but the impact of all of these reversals hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to stop reading for a while just to process what was happening on the page.

Time’s Arrow is technically and emotionally brilliant. I knew about the backwards-time conceit before I picked it up, but I didn’t realize that Amis (who I’ve never read before) had the chops to actually make time run in reverse—instead of cheating and just writing the scenes out of chronological order. By turning time on its head, Time’s Arrow forces readers to reimagine the Holocaust and the crimes of Auschwitz because we simply have to think harder to first understand the narrator’s experience then parse out what’s really going on. It really is a work of genius.


* Quote is from the 1991 hardcover by Harmony Books.

The Chosen Ones, by Steven Sem-Sandberg

Steven Sem-Sandberg’s The Chosen Ones (translated by Anna Paterson) is a difficult book to read. First, there is the subject matter. Even though The Chosen Ones is a novel, it is closely based on the actual history of the victims and perpetrators of Aktion T4, the Nazi euthanasia program for people designated “unworthy of life.” Second, the style of the book—dense paragraphs that read like nonfiction more often than not—is relentless. I never got a break from the details of Aktion T4 and its effects on the children that got caught up in its monstrous betrayal of everything medicine is supposed to stand for.

For the most part, The Chosen Ones centers on Adrian Ziegler and Anna Katschenka. Ziegler is fictional but closely modeled on actual patients held at the Austrian Am Spiegelgrund Clinic. Before the war, the clinic’s staff cared for children who suffered from congenital illnesses or deformities, mental disorders, learning disabilities, and a host of other problems that their parents found they could not cope with. Some of the children are clearly mentally ill. Others are more ambiguous and, in modern times, would not be institutionalized. Adrian is one of the ambiguous ones. Before the war, he is neglected by his parents and caretakers. There’s nothing that I could point to about his behavior that would warrant putting him in a place like Am Spiegelgrund. Mostly, he’s just very unlucky. His time in Am Spiegelgrund, however, with doctors out to prove pseudoscientific theories about “racial hygiene” or conduct unethical, painful experiments, and cruel nurses, changes him. For the rest of his life, Adrian will be in and out of prisons and mental institutions.

Anna Katschenka is a nurse at Am Spiegelgrund. She’s not a Nazi. She’s not even particularly cruel or callous to the children at the clinic. She is, however, more than willing to follow orders. Early in the book, Katschenka meets with the clinic’s director, who shows her a memo from Berlin that authorizes the staff to euthanize “hopeless” cases. Essentially, if no cure for their “condition” is possible, children can be killed. I put quotations around conditions because while some of the children do have diagnosable illnesses, some of the victims were troublemakers or because of their ethnic backgrounds. Even though the Hippocratic Oath begins with the principle of “First, do no harm,” Katschenka did nothing to stop the crimes occurring all around her. She comforts herself by telling herself:

The ultimate decisions are not made by us, but by them, in Berlin. All we can do is knuckle under and do as we’re told. None of us can be regarded as personally responsible. We are obliged to obey current legislation. We have no reason to feel guilty. (Chapter III*)

Like many Nazis would say after the war, she was only following orders as if that makes things okay.

There is a third confounding factor that makes The Chosen Ones a difficult read (as if we needed one more thing). The third factor is that no one in this book can be trusted. Ziegler’s mental condition deteriorates over the course of the book. Katschenka and the medical staff lie constantly to save face and/or convince themselves that they’re doing the right thing. Working out what really happened is a challenge and I know not every reader enjoys this particular one.

Earlier today, I read Susan Rubin Suleiman’s review of The Chosen Ones in The New York Times. Suleiman’s chief complaint was that none of the characters had much depth, leaving her with a litany of crimes to slog through. I disagree. I found the two main characters fascinating because they are so messy. Katschenka believes herself to be dedicated to her work, in spite of her participation in euthanasia. Ziegler’s psyche is a snarl of anger, confusion, and pain. I found each characters’ version of events to be very revealing about what motivated them and why they did what they did.

After I finished The Chosen Ones, I had to read something completely different. I don’t think that I’ve recovered from the mere experience of reading this book even two days later. This book is not for every reader given its subject matter and its stylistic challenges. I might recommend it, but only for readers who are curious about ethical dilemmas, culpability, and/or crimes against humanity and really, really want to give their brains a lot to chew over.


* Quote is from the 2016 kindle edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch

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.