Orphans of the Carnival by: Carol Birch



“When you think about it- every person’s like a museum of their life.”


Oh my heart! My heart is still healing from this novel. Julia Pastrana was a born ‘freak’, but an accomplished very talented one who was a dancer, a performer, could speak several languages and could both charm and horrify people. But like many women, all she wanted was to be loved for who she was beneath her ‘animal countenance’. Everyone knows no man could ever look upon such ugliness and find love, it is unheard of, surely. She feels cursed, could her mother have gone out under a full moon and her punishment was this monster infant? Julia finds a shaman and what she wants to know is as human a question as any other  warm-blooded girl’s, will she be loved?  Is she Incredibly the shaman informs her she will be loved within a year. Sure enough, as soon as Theodore Lent enters her life and offers her the chance to see the world it doesn’t take much convincing but getting over her fear. They become more than business partners but Theo is both disturbed by and hungry for Julia. She is a money-maker for these strange times, when curiousities were all the rage. But this story takes readers past her stage persona and finds a lonely woman that suffers the cruelties of her face. Walking the streets veiled in generally a must, and when she is ‘uncovered’ the cruelty and meanness of others exposes the ugliness in the hearts of the average person, begging the question ‘who is the real monster?’ Theo himself is often suspect, and is this love? Is this a love worthy of Julia? I can’t go into detail about what fortunes come to light, or how it broke my heart except to say maybe preserving curiosities can be a monstrous perversity. Theo finds Julia to be a marvel, a rare exotic gift but he struggles too with his feelings. 

I don’t want to give anything away, but this story is about humanity and inhumanity at the same time. It’s about our perceptions, and how true beauty is sometimes hidden in the least likely places. I felt shame for the abuse of Julia and people like her (yes this is fictionalized  account but she did exist). On the one hand people think ‘well at least she was able to make a career of her ‘misfortune of birth’, but on the other why must someone deemed flawed become a side-show for the rest of the world? How horrifying, the hungry eyes paying to see the ‘oddity’, how heart-wrenching to read of one’s own shocking ‘ugliness’. How terrible to love a man who is also an opportunist, even depriving you of your final rest… well without giving much away, by the end my heart was carrying such heaviness that I am still thinking about her today. Not often fiction stays with me, but it’s beautiful when it does. 

I loved the ‘little doll’ story that goes along present day alongside Julia’s tale, the woman who collects things and how it all tied together in the end. What a gorgeously told story!  Darn you Carol Birch for making me care! When Theo needs another money maker (the stink of opportunity never escapes him) he will find another like Julia. But there is a fight in Marie! Marie isn’t Julia though she looks similar.  Theo grows older, and the things Julia was told so long ago do come true, just not quite the way one would have imagined. It ends as it should, and it clings to the reader. This book is haunting, and it’s good to have your heart haunted once in a great book. 


Double Day Books

Double Day

Pub Date 08 Nov 2016



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