I received Orphans Of The Carnival in exchange for an honest review
I requested this book based on its beautiful cover and the fact that it’s about carnivals – I can’t resist a carnival/circus story. But this book is so much much more than a throwaway, fun-filled tale set under the big top.
Orphans Of The Carnival is based on the true story of Julia Pastrama, a woman born in 19th Century Mexico. With her face and body covered in thick black hair and an unusually wide nose, her looks were almost more reminiscent of an ape than of a woman. Being born into a time when so little was understood about medical oddities such as hers, Julia was singled out and ostracised from a young age. To try to build a future for herself despite her unusual appearance, she left her home of Mexico in her late teens to move to America and embarked on a tour with a circus tribe.
Julia isn’t someone who gets by on her unusual appearance alone; she’s intelligent, articulate and an accomplished singer and dancer, and she shocks and mesmerises all who cross her path. It isn’t long until she’s snapped up by Theo Lent, a regular on the circuit who believes he can take her career to the next level.
And he does – soon Julia is a world-renowned performer, touring the globe, attending prestigious events and performing countless solo shows. This story isn’t all glitz and glamour though, the author explores what might have been going on underneath the surface. Julia was a vulnerable young woman who wanted people to see past her exterior and appreciate her for her many other talents, and for a while she believes she may have found that person in Theo. Theo was appalled and fascinated by Julia in equal measure, but above all he recognised her as unique – a money-making machine, not to be let go of.
This book isn’t packed with action and drama, it’s more of a slow burner. I have to admit I found it a little slow-moving at times, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the main events of the story are all heavily based in fact.
Following Julia’s journey to fame we also see the darker side, as the author offers small vignettes which explore the unfair treatment she received. From taunting teenagers to probing doctors and her own husband’s secret taint of disgust, Julia struggles to find peace in her life and, when her life is tragically cut short, it doesn’t stop there. I don’t want to give too much away but it was the events which took place after Julia’s death which truly shocked me.
Whilst this story didn’t have me gripped to the pages, I’m still glad I read it. Carol Birch has given Julia Pastrama a voice and breathed life into a woman who was tragically misunderstood after all these years. Her story is tragic, haunting and disturbing. An insightful look at the exploitative nature of the traditional circus, and a homage to a unique woman – this book is well worth a read.