Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels descends into the heartbreaking abyss of loneliness, only to find connections and companionship in the most unlikely of places. Following the intertwined lives of four characters living on the cusp of society, Parry’s debut traces their narratives through New York in the mid-1890s, before the consolidation of the boroughs. Through powerful and often shocking prose, Parry reveals the inner workings and the gut-wrenching secrets of characters who had been silenced and ignored, all starting with the discovery of a baby stowed alongside the trash.
Belle and Odile Church are twins who, prior to a devastating fire, performed at the Church of Marvels, a Coney Island sideshow staple. The fire not only upended their lives, but killed their mother and friends. During the opening chapters, Odile is performing solo, strapped to The Wheel of Death, despite the fact that she lacks her sister’s talent and abilities due to a twisted and malformed spine. For most of her life, Odile has performed in limited capacity, but when Belle leaves their Coney Island home, Odile picks up the slack for the sideshow’s new owner, Mr. Guilfoyle. After an accident during a knife throw, Odile impulsively decides to leave Brooklyn to try to find her sister, following a few vague clues discerned from a letter.
Along with the Church twins, the novel also follows the lives of Sylvan, a night-soiler who discovers the abandoned infant during his route, and Alphie, an undertaker’s wife, who has been institutionalized with little memory of how she arrived at the asylum. Though Sylvan is encouraged to leave the baby behind, reassured that someone else will take responsibility for her, he finds it all but impossible. Hiding the baby in his coat, he leaves work early to bring her to his home. Like most of the characters in the novel, Sylvan lives alone, an outcast from society. Labeled as a “dogboy,” he is described as having “no people” and “no tribe.” The memories of his early life are fractured and blurry, and he carries with him images that he cannot distinguish as dream or actual memory. Still, he is drawn to the baby, hoping that one day she might remember his kindness.
Alphie’s story too is shrouded in mystery. She is separated from her beloved husband Anthony, but has trouble recalling the circumstances that led her to the institution. While she clings to the hope that Anthony will be arriving at any moment to save her, he never comes. Throughout the course of Alphie’s story, she begins to recall snippets of what happened during her final night of freedom, frequently returning to a memory of Anthony’s mother, the Signora, and her cries of “Vi mostro, vi mostro.” The rest of her story too remains fractured for much of the novel, but becomes clearer as Alphie plans her escape from the island along with a fellow patient, a girl without a tongue who is known only as Orchard Broome—the words tattooed on her skin.
These four characters’ lives are of course entwined, though for their storylines to intersect Parry leans heavily on coincidence. While the convergence of characters during a pivotal moment of the text does require a suspension of disbelief, it perhaps also relates to Belle’s early musings about how often in life, the marvelous can slip past us without our noticing. Parry writes, “We assume that our sight is reliable, that our deeds are straightforward, that our words have one meaning. But life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns.”
Parry’s novel is as much about its characters as it is about the early days of New York City. For her characters, Manhattan is still, despite its filth and danger, both a means of escape and a beacon of opportunity. Upon seeing Manhattan from the ferry, Odile is awestruck: the buildings seemed “gilded” and appeared to rise from the water “like the masts of a sunken ship.” Though both sentiments convey a shimmer of beauty, there is darkness underneath: a gilded surface, like the masts of a shipwreck, imply something beyond the depths of sight. Despite this sometimes idealized glow of Manhattan, it is filthy, violent, and depraved. While Odile feels “tenderly, thunderously alive,” as she stares ahead at the city before her, those feelings quickly recede. A few pages on, she thinks about the names of neighborhoods in New York that she heard about back at Coney Island and feels confusion and fear: “They all sounded so seedy and carnal—places full of hot steam and painted mouths; men and women pawing at each other in the back of a packing house, kissing between slabs of fat-bubbled meat.”
Sylvan’s occupation as a night-soiler for the privies behind the tenement houses is enough to speak to the literal stench and grime of the city, and indeed the text is rife with passages speaking to a kind of visceral, pulsing trail of garbage, buzzing and alive. But beyond the literal, Parry presents to us children forced to sell their bodies, many people in the throes of debilitating drug addiction, and a New York riddled with TB. Though her characters suffer wildly in this place, Parry grants them vibrant backstories that lend them compassion rather than pity.
Just as Odile was able to see a sliver of beauty in New York, so could Sylvan. Even as he foraged through the vacant apartments of his deceased neighbors, or watched as soiled laundry flew “high over the city like crests on the flags of a ship,” a different version of New York seemed just beyond his own: “There were streets named Mulberry and Orchard and Cherry, streets bright and tart, streets with a color and a taste.”
Parry’s New York exists as a kind of catchall orphanage for the lonely and the broken. Beyond the narrators, many minor characters in the novel are orphaned as well, all seeking kindness and compassion wherever they can. But with the idea of New York as an orphanage comes a moment of hope: huddled together, they can find one another. They can make their own homes.
Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry. New York, New York: Ecco, May 2015. 320 pages. $26.99, hardcover.
Jennifer Ray Morell is a teacher and writer from Queens, New York. Her work has appeared in Slate, Tin House, Newtown Literary, Trop, and Underwater New York.