Carol Birch – Orphans of the Carnival
Tale of two time periods is at once poignant and jarring
As with Jamrach's Menagerie, the novel for which Carol Birch was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, Orphans of the Carnival succeeds in wholly immersing the reader in a historical, almost fantastical world. Julia Pastrana is a 'bear woman': covered in hair and made to sing and dance for the masses. Birch writes about Julia's surroundings beautifully. Hers is a world of slow moving steam trains, warm, ornate auditoriums, and judgemental men and women, afraid of anyone and anything different.
While Julia's life is pieced together expertly, her story is woven in with that of Rose, a collector of curios, odds and ends in modern day London. Rose's character is almost incidental, a tool to connect Julia with the 21st century, and it's difficult to connect with her narrative.
Birch is a skilled historical world builder, but forcing her readers to leave the visceral, heartbreaking world of the Victorian carnival to spend time in the two dimensional 21st century is simply jarring.