I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Release date (UK): 2nd June 2015
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I was so excited to get my hands on this book, and it really did not disappoint. It has everything; the vibrance of a spectacular Coney Island circus show, the darkness of an isolated women’s asylum and more, tied together in a tangled web of mystery which the talented Leslie Parry gradually unravels.
Set in 1885, Church of Marvels introduces us to three seemingly disparate individuals. There’s Sylvan, a struggling night-soiler and sometimes boxer living in New York City, who finds an abandoned baby in a local privy and impulsively takes her in. Then Odile, a circus performer on Coney Island who has recently lost her mother in a theatre fire and is searching for her twin sister Belle who moved away soon after. And Alphie, trapped in an asylum on Roosevelt Island for no clear reason which the reader can see.
This book is a slow burner. As Parry gradually introduces the characters, the first half of the story offers up more questions than answers and it’s almost impossible to see how the seemingly disconnected storyline will tie together. But as it progresses, the writer leads the reader through a labyrinth of New York’s back alleys, brothels, opium dens and apothecaries as the interconnecting backstories behind the characters are revealed.
The scene-setting in this novel is fantastic; New York at the turn-of-the-century is beautifully imagined and Parry’s evocative writing perfectly captures the atmosphere of the time and the vibrancy of the big city, while also exposing a dark and seedy side to century New York. “I’ve found that here in this city, the lights burn even brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows I know.” The quirky circus life of Coney Island and the stifling atmosphere of the island asylum are also brought to life through Parry’s visceral writing.
But more than that, the plot is incredibly strong, with twists and turns I never expected. Near the beginning of the novel, Parry writes; “We can be a weary, cynical lot—we grow old and see only what suits us, and what is marvelous can often pass us by.” This concept is true for this entire book; nothing is as it seems and you can’t take anything for granted
The book does jump between character points of view a lot, and I think because of this coupled with the sharp changes in plot, I did feel I didn’t get to know some of the characters as well as I would have liked, and struggled to emphasise at times as a result. There are some parts of the novel I would have liked explored in more depth – particularly a twist focusing on one of the central three character which is thrown in near the end, and the new viewpoint which is only introduced in the epilogue.
But these foibles didn’t detract too much from the book for me; the richly imagined world was a beautiful place to explore and the plot was so strong I just wanted to keep reading. This is yet another impressive debut to look out for in 2015, and it only just missed five stars from me.