Saturday, December 17, 2016

Orphans of the Carnival - Carol Birch

Sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review


Publisher: Canongate Books

Copyright: Carol Birch, 2016

ISBN: 978-1782116547

Format: Hardback, 380pp

Genre: Historical Fiction/Memoir

Rating: 4.5/5

Summed up in a few words
Honest. Adventurous. Magnificent. Tragic.

First Impressions
Orphans of the Carnival immediately caught my eye with the gorgeous cover art and captivating plot. Carol Birch treated this story with all the wonder and respect that it deserved and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this book. Julia Pastrana was such a rare and wonderful person and her story is one that needs to be read. Based on the true events of her life, with some amazingly creative input from Carol Birch, Orphans of the Carnival is a dedicated and wondrous narrative about Julia's struggle and success within the performing arts and owning her identity.

Book Synopsis
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, a collector of lost treasures in an attic room in present-day South London? In this haunting tale of identity, love and independence, these two lives connect in unforgettable ways.

My Thoughts
Julia Pastrana has an exceptional story. A Mexican orphan who was taken in by a family who raised her, taught her to sing, dance and play instruments. When the elderly lady she was tasked with looking after passes away, Julia decides to go on the road, using her talents and irregular appearance to make money and see the world. Meeting others like herself, misfits and the wonderfully different, she travels America, doing shows, appearing in carnivals and participating in high profile events.

The story is filled with uncertainty and insecurity, Julia has no idea how the world will react to her appearance, the hair, the beard, her facial structure her talents and her personality. Being called ape-woman, bear-woman, inhuman and a creature causes her to doubt her place in the world, but those around her who care about her (or the money she can make) encourage her to carry on and fulfil her dreams. It may sound a bit harsh, but I was a little surprised about how upbeat and positive Orphans of the Carnival was! And I loved it! There are some horrific, unpleasant and hurtful themes and scenarios, but overall I would say it was about 70% adventure and fortitude and about 30% sadness and pain.

The events told in the book were based on her life and Carol Birch had creative freedom to narrate her life, through a third person perspective, and I think she did a great job. The story was emotional, positive, adventurous, respectful and honest. While I thought the Julia Pastrana element was outstanding and readable, I wasn't too sure about the Rose sections of this book. They served well to break up the Julia sections, but in my opinion, they didn't really add much my enjoyment or appreciation of the story. 

Rose's story is brief, focusing on her life in the present day. Surrounding herself with all the lost/unwanted items that she comes across in her life. One day, she finds a doll and takes it home and over the course of the book, her life seems to dissolve away and everything becomes about the doll. I understand why it was included, it acts to answer some questions and add another dimension to the story, but I could have read and enjoyed the book without it.

There are several elements in this book that made it both easy to read and difficult to digest. The characters Julia comes across in her travels were a stand out element to the book, Cato, Ezra, Myrtle and Delia among others are individuals who teach Julia the ways of the world and how to survive in it. I also appreciated Julia's narrative, her rise from tents and abuse to almost royalty. For those who know the story or have read this already, you may agree with me that Theo Lent is probably the most detestable part to this book, though he did make Julia happy in her life so that accounts for something.

Julia's life was difficult but she made the best of a rough situation. The themes and tone in this book reflect this idea really well. The tone and atmosphere was one of both nervous anxiety but also adventure, wonder and delight. I felt the Carol Birch was aiming for themes like, anything is possible and it is heart and personality that truly matter, if that is true then she nailed it and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Julia's company.

Overall, I have given this book 4/5 stars because it was a well written and respectful narrative, but even though the Rose element added another dimension to the story, it still felt unnecessary. I do recommend this book to you all, it is a perfect piece of historical fiction with true elements threaded throughout that focuses on a wonderful and brave woman who beat the odds to become famous and fall in love. Thank you for reading this review and check out Always Trust In Books for more reviews, posts and other bookish fun. 

Pick up the book here: Amazon UK/Amazon US/Goodreads 

About the Author: Carol Birch is the author of eleven previous novels, including Scapegallows, Turn Again Home, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and Jamrach's Menagerie, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the London Book Award. She has also won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the David Higham Award for Best First Novel. (Official Bio)


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