Set in 1895 New York, Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels is a debut novel of orphans and urchins, drunkards and whores, opium dens and insane asylums, sideshow contortionists and backyard abortionists.
Dickens with sex, then. Dickens by way of Steven Soderbergh’s Knick.
The story centres around four characters – sideshow twins who’ve just lost their mother in a fire, a privy cleaner who finds an abandoned baby in the muck, and a mental patient with a secret – whose lives intersect in some surprising ways.
The writing is rich and fragrant, creating a palpable atmosphere. Parry barely let’s a page pass without using her considerable descriptive powers to evoke the sights, sounds and smells – mostly smells – of the Gilded Age squalor she’s imagined.
But there’s plot here too.
In its opening chapters the book sets up a number of mysteries, many of which are not solved until its final pages.
The language is occasionally just a little too florid, and Parry’s not quite as good at writing people as she is at writing place. And even though it’s a relatively short book – just 300 pages – the story’s stretched a bit thin, sagging in the second act.
But the payoff is worth enduring the minor flaws of what’s an otherwise impressive debut.
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