Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, April 2, 2015

Thursday, April 2, 2015: Maximum Shelf: The Church of Marvels


Ecco: Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Ecco: Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Ecco: Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Ecco: Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Church of Marvels

by Leslie Parry

Leslie Parry's debut novel, Church of Marvels, is set in 1895, in phantasmagorical New York City, and stars a weird, lovable cast. Four protagonists share the spotlight in alternating chapters: recently estranged twin sisters Belle and Odile, orphaned loner Sylvan Threadgill, and the mysterious Alphie.

Belle and Odile's mother was the indomitable and fabled Friendship Willingbird Church, a runaway who at age 14 dressed as a boy to fight for the Union army, and later established her own circus theater on Coney Island, called the Church of Marvels. After the Church caught fire and Friendship died in its embers, Belle (ever the adventurer) left for the city with a secret that readers must wait for and wonder about. Odile stayed behind, wondering herself at her sister's abandonment. Belle writes home: "You, dear sister, have always been the brave one, the good one, the strongest of all." But Odile is not the brave one, and her sister's letter illuminates nothing about Belle's new life.

Sylvan Threadgill earns his wages as a night-soiler, cleaning out tenement privies on the Lower East Side. He moonlights by competing in fights that take place and are bet upon in back rooms and on the docks. In the novel's opening pages, Sylvan, at work one night, finds an unusual treasure in the filth: a baby girl, pale and green-eyed, "with a small nose and a dimpled chin like a pat of butter someone had stuck their thumb in."

Alphie is an undertaker's wife with a scandalous past who awakes one morning, disoriented, to find herself imprisoned in the asylum on Blackwell's Island. She is desperate for rescue, sure that her husband will come, sure that her plight is another evil trick of her mother-in-law's.

These four characters occupy separate stories for much of the book, and are joined by a colorful supporting cast. There are actors from the sideshow: a boy who is half girl, a girl with four legs, the man who throws knives at Odile as she rotates slowly on a wheel. There is the woman Sylvan turns to for help with the baby, and the very different woman Belle turns to for a very different sort of help. A strange parade of children who dwell underground put on a show for Odile when she reaches Manhattan, with implications she takes personally; Alphie's fellows, from her past life, shed a harsh light. This array is completed by the baby Sylvan liberates. An orphan himself, he is unable to turn away from her stark need. But a part-time pugilist who was never parented himself makes an inapt caretaker for a newborn.

However fantastical they may be, these eccentrics do not populate a fantasy, but a realistic, heartbreaking and sympathetic story of resilience and connections lost and found. Appropriately, the action of the novel begins with Odile's breaking character. She had found familiar if uncomfortable circus work with another theater company following her mother's death, but now leaves to pursue Belle, a journey that leads her into underground opium dens, a hothouse flower nursery curated by an enigmatic woman, and the back alleys of the tenement district. She finds an unlikely ally in her hunt for her sister, just as Belle finds her own, "in this city [where] the lights burn ever brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows." In chapters alternating among third-person perspectives, we track the movements of the four protagonists as they close in, geographically and philosophically, on the end of their individual and shared stories.

Parry's central players are each mysterious and multi-layered, and readers will receive shocking new intelligence in the final pages of this masterful novel. In gradually, teasingly unveiling myriad deceptions, Parry shows perhaps her greatest strength.

The atmosphere she evokes is both whimsical and grotesque. The gruesome, appalling asylum, roiling with violence and refuse, and the babies abandoned in privies paint a brutally harsh picture. But the free-wheeling circus performers and the Church family history contribute a note of fancy. Alphie's life story in particular provides a showcase for this dualism, where horror meets magic--she once worked on the street as a "penny Rembrandt," painting men's faces with great skill to cover up the bruises and sallowness of their dissipated nights, so that they could go home to their respectable lives. Church of Marvels demonstrates fascinating characterization and atmosphere as well as a riveting plot.

The bizarre and fanciful world contained in New York City at the turn of the last century is a playground for Parry's magnificent, alluring prose. These enchantments make Church of Marvels memorable. But it is the compelling characters, both larger-than-life and poignantly real, that exhibit beauty, wonder and distress, and will most beguile readers in the end. --Julia Jenkins

Ecco, $26.99, hardcover, 9780062367556

Ecco: Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry


Leslie Parry: Trusting the Characters

photo: Adam Farabee

Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her stories have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Missouri ReviewCincinnati Review, and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She was recently a resident at Yaddo and the Kerouac House. Her writing has also received a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories. She lives in Chicago.

Church of Marvels inhabits a very compelling and specific setting that combines fantasy and history. How did you choose this time and place?

I didn't consciously set out to write a book about New York, but the sensory experience of living there (the space, the light, the sounds and smells) remains very vivid in my mind, years after I moved away. Like many Americans, the city was a portal for my family. My great-grandfather, who was born in 1888, grew up in an immigrant family in Greenwich Village. His own father was a dreamy, dissolute, would-be poet who operated an elevator; his mother and sister worked as dressmakers. He fell in love with my great-grandmother, an actress, when he saw her on the stage. It's a story that's always fascinated me, but because he died so young, it's all that I really know of him. So at the root of this book, perhaps, is the desire to re-create the world that he lived in, to imagine a history of the Parrys in America. But the story, of course, became something else entirely. And once I started following these specific characters through the streets of Manhattan, the book took on a life of its own.

How much research did you have to do into this historical setting, and what did that process look like?

Before I even knew this was going to be a novel, I was reading certain books just out of curiosity--New York history, medical history, labor history; various histories of vaudeville, dime museums, prizefighting, theater. I even read a book on the history of garbage. So I'm sure all of those various threads were humming along in my mind, crossing and sparking, when I sat down to write. Then, when I was deep into the drafting process, I went back and did some more focused reading: on hair weaving, river transportation, the opium trade, etc. I loved doing research: it answered questions I didn't even know I had, and helped me understand the hurdles these characters would have been up against. But at the same time--since this is a work of fiction--I didn't feel beholden to a strict factual representation. I let the research inform the story, but not determine it.

You tell a number of different stories that eventually converge into one. Was it hard to keep track?

Yes! And more so at first, when the story was still taking shape. I knew the direction I was traveling--I knew, in a loose way, how I wanted the plot to evolve--but I didn't always have a clear path. I took a lot of wrong turns and hit a few dead ends. But I was guided by the overall sensibility of the story; I had to trust the characters. And I was fortunate enough to have a terrific editor help me across the finish line.

Did you always intend to write them as distinct stories?

Yes. In fact, the very first pages of this novel were not novelistic at all. I began writing vignettes about people who populated different areas of the city--just character sketches, really. It was almost like an actorly exercise, trying to situate myself in another body, in another world. This came about after spending some time in New York, where a few chance encounters happened to dovetail serendipitously. I caught a sideshow act at Coney Island; I read Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Mad-House; I spent days traversing downtown Manhattan with my sister (usually on the hunt for gelato, mussels, pickles, dumplings). I stumbled across the word night-soiler, I think during a visit to the Tenement Museum. But I got frustrated with these vignettes after a while, unsure where they were headed. I put the pages away for a few years, but I kept thinking back on them. One day I read everything through again and saw the whole project differently--it was a novel, and soon the threads began to braid together.

What do you think makes for good or memorable characters?

That's a good question. I'm drawn to characters who make mistakes. (This is different from having an endearing flaw--being beautiful but clumsy, say, or handsome but moody.) Mistakes--whether they're decisions made impulsively, or are calculated; whether they happen in spite of a character's better judgment, or begin as acts of good faith, naiveté--they reveal some of the most complicated aspects of human behavior. Confusion and doubt, shame or regret, thwarted desire, yearning, fury, vulnerability, perhaps a barbed pathway to amends--it's a universal experience, and yet has infinite variations.

Do you have a favorite character?

Whichever character I was writing about at the moment became my favorite (even when they tried me and exasperated me!). But there is a special place in my heart for Alphie. --Julia Jenkins


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