Miraculum, by Steph Post. Polis Books, January 2019. 320 pages. $26.00, hardcover.
“‘Step right up, gents! Step right up, ladies! That’s right! Prepare to be astounded, confounded and utterly shocked beyond your wildest dreams!’”
The perception of the carnival as a happy place with the central purpose of bringing amusement and joy to the crowd gets waved to the side in this fantastical realist take on what goes on behind the scenes in a carnival in 1922. In Miraculum, Steph Post constructs the culture behind her carnival acts as both grittier and more magical than the stereotypical fun circus life.
From the first chapter, we are caught up in intricately crafted descriptions that flood the senses with the atmosphere of the carnival, both the visitor perspective and the behind-the-scenes life. Intricately narrated commentaries interspersed throughout the novel lend a mythological feel to the novel and wrap our mind in the magic of the story, impressing a feeling of magical tradition to the story and providing subtle hints for the us of what is to come:
What the gods do is one thing and what humans do with the gods’ stories is another. For some reason, the Greeks looked on the reign of Cronus as a time of idyllic delight. A golden age. And most of the people were stupid, so maybe it was a happy time. Apparently, all anyone did was drink and fornicate and eat fruit off of trees. They did have to offer themselves up occasionally, human sacrifices and all that, but that was nothing out of the ordinary.
The stunning images throughout the novel transport us to another time and place where fantastic beings are struggling to make a living and manage their relationships, and “ordinary” people are invested with powers that affect a realm outside of their own. Descriptions of carnival visitors mirror our response to the images painted through the words of the novel, allowing us to slip effortlessly into scenes and be enraptured by all the story has to offer:
Whether they were coming or going, each face had been lit up with a certain kind of light, and in drawing a patron’s portrait or caricature, he could always tell if they had just arrived or already witnessed all that the Star Light had to offer.
Told through a roving narrative perspective, Miraculum draws us into the heart of the Star Light carnival and leads us to new discoveries in every chapter, keeping us hooked until the very end. The story follows Ruby Chole, a tattooed snake charmer with a past veiled in secrecy and a quick wit. Her world in the carnival is rocked by a death among the performers and her intrigue is aroused when a well-dressed newcomer takes the vacant position. Not only does Daniel seem to be able to easily earn the trust of her coworkers, but he also manages to play the role of carnival geek, biting the heads off chickens to horrify the crows, without ruining his pristine appearance. Daniel’s appearance juxtaposes beautifully with the dirt and earthiness of the carnival atmosphere throughout the prose:
A man striding across the midway in an immaculate black suit. He was tugging at the cuffs of his jacket, as if he were on his way to a fancy dinner, fastidiously adjusting himself before he arrived. His skin was unnaturally white and even from a distance, Ruby could tell that his eyes were glittering black. While everyone else around him was already coated with a layer of sweat and grime, his slick black hair shone in the sunlight and matched the gleam of his oiled leather shoes.
With the presence of Daniel, the struggle of the rest of the workers is brought to light, presenting a perspective of the show not typically discussed—that of the poor actors trying to make a living. Miraculum offers insight into the ins and outs of carnival life and the effect it has on relationships and friendships through Ruby’s past. With the return of a previous lover, Ruby is thrown into nostalgia for everything she has lost and remembrance of her father’s dark intentions for her that led her to the role she now plays in the carnival as an Enchantress.
The novel brings us along with Ruby in uncovering the mystery of her past and of Daniel’s identity, and only after losing almost everything does Ruby realize the power she received through her struggles and the purpose she has been prepared to fulfill.
While some elements of the ending left me questioning the outcome of the novel and how it fit into the final few chapters’ revelations, the “Coda” at the end truly seemed to capture the mystical element of the novel that was woven through the interior glimpses throughout.
This book fits well into the genre of young adult fiction and gloriously portrays a magical setting that I found most engaging and entertaining. The magic of the novel is well-formulated and the mythological background is woven thoroughly into the narrative and the characters. All of the characters were developed and distinguishable, with many enjoyable and intriguing figures fitting for a story that takes place mainly in a carnival.
The novel also raises the subtle question of what makes a person a freak and what it means to people to be seen as such. Over the course of the narrative, various characters are described by their deformities and special gifts, and at one point, a “freak” asks a man “What is your gift? What were you known for? What wonder did the playbills announce?” bringing to the our attention the way in which these titles influence the way carnival performers view themselves and expect others to view them.
From the first page, Miraculum catches our attention with its poetic prose and vivid imagery and doesn’t let go until well after the story is over, leaving us with fantastical images imprinted on our brains and the sounds and smells of the carnival in our noses.
Kelsi Brown is a graduate student at Winthrop University majoring in English. She spends most of her free time reading and writing and hopes to eventually get her PhD and teach English at a university.