From the blurb:
THE NIGHT CIRCUS MEETS WATER FOR ELEPHANTS MEETS CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE IN THIS COMPULSIVELY READABLE DEBUT
New York, 1895. It's late on a warm city night when Sylvan Threadgill, a young night soiler who cleans out the privies behind the tenement houses, pulls a terrible secret out from the filthy hollows: an abandoned newborn baby. An orphan himself, Sylvan was raised by a kindly Italian family and can't bring himself to leave the baby in the slop. He tucks her into his chest, resolving to find out where she belongs.
Odile Church is the girl-on-the-wheel, a second-fiddle act in a show that has long since lost its magic. Odile and her sister Belle were raised in the curtained halls of their mother's spectacular Coney Island sideshow: The Church of Marvels. Belle was always the star-the sword swallower-light, nimble, a true human marvel. But now the sideshow has burnt to the ground, their mother dead in the ashes, and Belle has escaped to the city.
Alphie wakes up groggy and confused in Blackwell's Lunatic Asylum. The last thing she remembers is a dark stain on the floor, her mother-in-law screaming. She had once walked the streets as an escort and a penny-Rembrandt, cleaning up men after their drunken brawls. Now she is married; a lady in a reputable home. She is sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband's vile mother. But then a young woman is committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors from the depths of her agile throat, Alphie knows she harbors a dangerous secret that will alter the course of both of their lives...
On a single night, these strangers' lives will become irrevocably entwined, as secrets come to light and outsiders struggle for acceptance. From the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular sideshow to a desolate asylum, Leslie Parry makes turn-of-the-century New York feel alive, vivid, and magical in this luminous debut. In prose as magnetic and lucid as it is detailed, she offers a richly atmospheric vision of the past marked by astonishing feats of narrative that will leave you breathless.
One that does live up to its promise....
Our first narrator is Sylvan a night soil cleaner, removing waste from privies in the dead of night and when hes not toiling in this noisome occupation he engages in fist fights, amateur boxing to earn a few extra coppers. One night he finds amongst the waste an abandoned baby girl whom he rescues and thus begins his search for the infants mother.
Odile is a young woman we also meet, brought up in a circus by her unorthodox Mother alongside her beloved twin sister Belle. But the circus is no more, following a tragic fire which brought about the death of their Mother and several fellow performers, and Belle has taken off without a word to Odile. Belle the star of the show, sword swallowing, shape shifting beautiful Belle has left Odile with her slightly humped back and talent for having knives thrown at her whilst suspended mid air.
Then theres Alphie, she has ended up in a womens asylum, with a cruel tattoo around her neck, where the women are treated little better than animals, where few escape and where she waits daily for the love of her life, her husband to realise where his wife is and rescue her.
But everyone is hiding something or has had many things hidden from them and as these secrets are slowly revealed the story grips the reader tighter and won't let go. I am quite sure I haven't done this gorgeous book justice as my mind's still spinning around in the past examining the nunaces of this clever and delectable journey into the past.
Unlike a lot of books I've read recently I really liked Sylvan, Odile and Alphie, the characters in this book are skilfully drawn with a delicate hand and gain real depth and personality. I have seen it compared to The Crimson Petal and the White the Crimson Petal and the storytelling to that of Sarah Waters, such accolades made me very skeptical. But although not quite as raunchy or long as the aforementioned, the writing is in a similar class the characters their names and the historical detail and descriptions are all quite as perfect and the whole is a historical treat you must not miss and which will stay with me for quite some time - magical and magnificent.