Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch review — tiny dancer
Carol Birch likes to use ready-made stories as her starting point. Her 2011 Man Booker-shortlisted novel Jamrach’s Menagerie took as its source material the infamous wreck of the whaling ship Essex in 1820, a tragedy that partly inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Just as that earlier novel went far beyond Jamrach and his animal supply business, this one doesn’t particularly concern either orphans or carnivals, unless both titles are really references to the wider human condition.
The ready-made story here is that of Julia Pastrana, a celebrated 19th-century Mexican theatrical artiste who married her manager and toured America and Europe, making him a fortune with her sprightly singing and dancing. What audiences had really come to see was her disfiguration. Pastrana was not only covered in black hair, she also had simian features, for which she was dubbed “the ugliest woman in the world”.
Birch’s Julia is full of sensitivity, uncertain where, or even if, she belongs in the human world. Not surprising, when a doctor proclaims her “a semi-Human Indian . . . [a] hybrid wherein the nature of woman predominates over the brute — the Ourang Outang”. Everywhere Julia goes, people are astounded that she can speak clearly, behave daintily, converse rationally. In Birch’s presentation she is invariably poised, charming, well-mannered, keeping her real thoughts to herself and constrained by the conventional world she relies on for her income.
In plot terms, Birch has little leeway since she must stick to the historical facts. If readers can resist looking Pastrana up on the internet before finishing the novel, they will be rewarded by the sort of bizarre twist that can happen only in real life. A novelist would be thought perverse to inflict Pastrana’s ultimate fate on a fictional character. So Birch’s main task is to elaborate the facts with sensuous detail, to imagine incidents, conversations and impressions. This she does very well. Admirers of Jamrach will remember the vivid scenes on both land and sea, and its pungent dialogue.
‘What am I scared of? Death, pain, the supernatural, flying, worms and maggots’
Julia’s professional life begins in a carnival, alongside a monstrously fat woman, a weepy contortionist and sweet, excitable Cato, who suffers from microcephaly. Among her fellow freaks she feels at home, admired for her talents and not shunned for her appearance. Under her three impresarios, Mr Rates, Mr Beach, then the passionate and intense Theo Lent, she dances her way from New Orleans to New York, and on to London, Vienna and Moscow, moving in high society and beguiling all who meet her. But Birch outlines the steep price Julia pays, in what may be a parable of modern fame. It is piquant that in our own historical moment, when veiled women are so contested, that Julia finds freedom from censure and revulsion when she goes about heavily veiled. Also, as Theo pragmatically points out, people won’t pay if they get to see her for free.
Julia’s story is intercut with that of Rose, a thirtysomething bohemian in 1980s London. Presumably Birch means to underline the difficulty an unconventional woman still has in leading an authentic life more than a century later. In her rented Brixton flat decorated like a hippie souk, Rose hoards junk, particularly broken dolls, which she scavenges out of skips. Another of her collections is kept in a silver pill box: “These . . . are all the eyelashes I’ve ever got out of my eyes or that have fallen out ever in all my whole life.”
You’d think such dottiness would keep any man at bay, but Rose is treated with considerable authorial fondness, and has a doting suitor and indulgent landlord. The brief sections concerning Rose are not particularly successful — although figuring out how the two stories will eventually conjoin provides a frisson of suspense. There is a queasily sexual moment when Theo refers to Julia as “a plush doll”, but it is the final, appalling connection between the two narratives that recalls the visceral charge of Jamrach’s climactic scenes.
However enjoyable and moving, the novel in the end doesn’t totally convince, perhaps because Julia remains a cipher; she doesn’t seem particularly Mexican, for example, and for all her cleverness seems unnaturally docile. But with ugliness in women perhaps even more of a cultural taboo now than in Pastrana’s day, her story remains an uncomfortable and distressing one.
Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch, Canongate RRP£14.99/Doubleday RRP$27.95, 352 pages