Orphans of the carnival - Carol Birch - a frank look at life in a freak show
I think everyone who reads this book should go into it knowing that it’s a novel with its feet firmly based on facts. I did, and it gave me a huge empathy with the main character Julia Pastrana, a woman who really existed, the notorious ape woman of Mexico who toured the world with Victorian freak shows. Just Google her name and you’ll find the original playbills for the carnivals she starred in and her photograph which haunted me throughout the book.
Oh my Gosh, did people really ostracise and revere “freaks” of nature, people with deformities and disabilities to such an extent that they became the celebrities of the day? Pointed at, poked and prodded and oohed and ahhed over, screamed and shrieked at for their horrifying appearance and all the time making a living the only way available to them by making a public display of their otherness, their difference? Yes, you better believe it, they did!
Julia was born in a small mountain village, brought up by friends and relatives after the mother she barely remembers, dies and leaves her orphaned and alone. Bad enough to live in poverty and be orphaned but Julia is an oddity, an ugly ape like countenance, covered almost entirely in fur or hair, with an extended jaw. But she is also a lively child, quick to learn, she is an accomplished dressmaker and eager to please others, she masters the art of languages, singing and dancing to keep people entertained.
A teenager she dances at a local wedding when she is spotted by a showman who offers her the chance of escape and soon she veils her face (the only way she can go out in public without creating a furore) and sets off by train to join a carnival troupe.
The people she meets, fellow freaks and monsters accept her for what she is, there are the armless and legless girls, a rubber man, an enormously fat lady and not least, Cato a pinhead, with a tiny egg shaped skull, a huge wide grin, little bent legs that make him always remain childlike, an irrepressible boundless energy and the inability to speak but to constantly vocalise his feelings in loud shrieks. Between little Cato and Julia grows a firm bond, and she mothers him to the extent that she feels a deep affection for him like a sibling or the son she longs for.
She soon becomes well known and is approached by Theo, an enterprising and ambitious young man who nevertheless proves to be feckless and impulsive. She allows herself to be coerced by him into allowing him to manage her and he takes her off on a whirlwind tour of first the US, then Europe, Russia and worldwide.
This book follows her life, as in the spotlight as a life can possibly be yet she can never walk alone outdoors for fear of exposure and ridicule and the one time she sets off to have a little adventure ends dreadfully in discovery and disaster. The medical profession long to examine her origins but are unable to concur why or how she is quite so very different to the norm.
All Julia wants is a normal family life, loving friends who aren’t using her and she daren’t even voice the thought that she longs for a loving relationship with a man., as she knows this is as unlikely as the hope that one day she will wake up and have a smooth fair skin with no coarse hair covering it.
I followed her life and relationships in this book as intimately as if I was there, I felt hurt on her behalf when she is used and abused by others, It is brutal, honest and frank, I found parts disturbing and some of the practises, so distasteful I balked.
Meanwhile there is a modern thread running alongside Julia’s story. We are introduced to Rose in the 1980’s she is a modern woman and seemingly completely unconnected to Julia’s story in any way at all. Rose is a hoarder of junk, she is hard to warm to, she has an erratic lifestyle, various failed relationships and in her own way is as much of a misfit to society as Julia was. There seems no point to this thread, at times wondering why has the author included it? But that does become clear and provides a poignant and harrowing finale.
There is an island of broken dolls which Rose dreams of visiting and amongst her hoarded junk is a broken and ugly damaged doll she rescues from a skip. She calls it Tattoo and won’t be parted from it. When I discovered the secret of Tattoo, it broke my heart and I urge anyone reading it to remember that this is also based around fact.
Crikey, parts of this book did upset me, I cried bucketloads and am shedding a tear now as I write my review. I have used terms which are anathema to me, freak and monster, as they are used in the book as they were used to Julia’s face in real life, but don’t think this comes easy to me – it really doesn’t because what Julia is, is NOT a monster but a charming, astute and lonely young woman crying out to be loved and I just wanted to give her a big hug and tell her the one thing that nobody ever seemed capable of doing during her life “You’re not a monster, you’re lovely”
I have read a few books by Carol Birch, the wonderful Jamrach’s menagerie, the compelling Scapegallows and more. She has the knack of searching out the unusual, embroidering it with her own unique style, embellishing fact by turning it into fiction and peopling it with larger than life rumbustious characters so you are sucked into a world which is far removed from everyday life yet ethereally authentic and satisfying.
Orphans of the Carnival is a wonderful, yet harrowing, atmospheric read, portraying what it’s like to be truly different and chronicling a life spent making the best of what you’ve got.
I received my advance copy from Netgalley for review and my thanks go to the author Canongate books for making it available.
A life in the spotlight will keep anyone hidden
Julia Pastrana is the singing and dancing marvel from Mexico, heralded on tours across nineteenth-century Europe as much for her talent as for her rather unusual appearance. Yet few can see past the thick hair that covers her: she is both the fascinating toast of a Governor's ball and the shunned, revolting, unnatural beast, to be hidden from children and pregnant women.
But what is her wonderful and terrible link to Rose, collector of lost treasures in an attic room in modern-day south London?
In this haunting tale of identity, love and independence, these two lives will connect in unforgettable ways.