It is a netherworld of horrors, an asylum for women in 1895 New York, an island of misery accessible only by ferry, in sharp contrast to Coney Island, where the Church of Marvels
theater of Friendship Willingbird Church features the talents of unique artists and her twin daughters, Odile and Isabelle, Belle an accomplished contortionist and sword-swallower, Odile
a paler but devoted shadow of her sister. But a fire changes all that. Friendship
is killed and Belle gone somewhere in New York City; Odile signs on as part of an act where she spins on a wheel as swords fly toward her body. Eventually Odile leaves this poor imitation of her mother’s enterprise, heading to New York to find her sister
with only a letter to guide her.
While Odile searches for Belle, Alphie, a married woman, finds herself delivered by night to a women’s asylum by a vengeful mother-in-law. Alphie’s husband,
the undertaker Anthony, is not at home when the confrontation with his mother occurs.
A bash on the head renders Alphie nearly unconscious, and she awakens to a living nightmare in a brutal place where impromptu tattoos brand women’s identities below their throats and leather collars
are fashioned to string them together when performing daily duties. Overwhelmed and terrified, Alphie awaits Anthony’s rescue as the days pass and her burden grows unbearable. Elsewhere, Sylvan, who gets by on odd jobs on the periphery of society, is working as a night-soiler when he discovers a newborn baby girl buried in the muck. Rather than leave her to perish, he secrets her in his pack, carrying her to the dark cellar where he sleeps. It is Sylvan’s intention to secure a safe place for the baby while searching for her mother, but he is already challenged beyond his means, armed with only his wits in an indifferent city. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The day-to-day camaraderie of the members of the Church of Marvels is in sharp contrast to the reality of the images evoked by Parry’s prose. At times stunning and always provocative, her phrases leave lasting imprints on the imagination, like the character describing herself as “a Brooklyn savage with a bag of swords,” the terrified women in an asylum “groping mole-blind from their beds” at the sound of an alarm, or the confession: “In this city, the lights burn ever brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows I know.” We explore the ugly underbelly of poverty, from the hardscrabble existence of a night-soiler to the fate of unmarried women who turn to abortionists and brokers of illegitimate babies, from opium dens to the “Penny Rembrandts” who paint over addicts’ black eyes and apply makeup to bruises before the men return to their ordinary lives, from those who entertain audiences with daredevil tricks to an asylum brimming with the moans of the tortured and the damned, whose only crimes are sins against society.
Parry manages to pull beauty from the muck, a coup for the disenfranchised--not without considerable imagination and unexpected sleight of hand--the miserable worlds of her protagonists an indictment of a city on the cusp of a new century that is deeply disturbing, a cautionary tale for the powerless. There are ways to survive, the silent contracts made among those who barter secrets, a tacit understanding that “we live by our secrets,” weighing the fragility and price of belonging in a world that shuns the different. Navigating the dark shadows of human experience, Parry explores the dimensions of endurance, the exorbitant price often paid for acceptance. The tale is dense with intricately knotted threads of subterfuge: a society rimed with the perception of propriety, the crafty disguises of feral souls who lurk among the innocent, the weak and the foolish, a society of misfits who abjure limitations, embrace the possible, laugh at the vagaries of fate. Church of Marvels is a shocking and exceptionally perceptive novel that plunges fearlessly into a dark place to claim the light.