It’s 1895 and Odile Church is about to get sliced by a misdirected knife. She signed up for it, though, as the girl cuffed to a spinning wheel in a theatrical venue, while a man with possibly dead-on aim throws knives at her. Odile is one of three main characters that narrate Leslie Parry’s intricate page-turner set in Lower New York. Church of Marvels (May 2015) is rich with detail, solid plotting, and a top hat full of surprises.
Odile is a young woman still grieving for her mother who died when the theater she owned went up in flames. Her sister, Belle, fled shortly after the fire and Odile goes in search of her. Parry’s sense of place is strong. As Odile travels to the other boroughs of New York, we are aware of how foreign they must have seemed, each with its own misery and dangers. All the sights and smells are there. So are the unfortunate ones, selling drugs or themselves to get by. Encountering them, Odile discovers her sister’s life was full of secrets.
Another character, Alphie, wakes up in a mental hospital, desperate for her husband to find her. She wonders if her mother-in-law has orchestrated her commitment, but her memory is spotty and returns in pieces.
The third narrator is Sylvan, a night soiler already hardened to life who discovers a baby in the waste he is shoveling out of the privies. Sylvan sets the action in motion as he goes in search of the child’s mother.
The desire driving these characters’ actions is palpable. The orphan, Sylvan, has scraped by since his parents abandoned him. He wonders ‘how does anyone even know what their place ought to be?’ Alphie wonders the same thing. A monster, her mother-in-law called her. All of these characters are damaged in some way. Parry displays their humanity first, their deformities after.
The characters’ quests are beautifully intertwined leading to surprising plot twists. After finishing the book, I went back to read it a second time to see how expertly the author dropped the clues. It didn’t disappoint on the second read. No need to be a lover of historical fiction to fall for this book. It’s a highly recommended read.
Reviewed by Carol Malkin
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