Orphans of the Carnival
by Carol Birch

Overview - From the Booker short-listed author of Jamrach's Menagerie comes the extraordinary, moving, and unsettling tale of a woman, branded a freak from birth, who becomes an international sensation but longs for genuine human connection

London had the best freaks, always had. 

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More About Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch
From the Booker short-listed author of Jamrach's Menagerie comes the extraordinary, moving, and unsettling tale of a woman, branded a freak from birth, who becomes an international sensation but longs for genuine human connection

London had the best freaks, always had. The Egyptian Hall, the Promenade of Wonders, the Siamese twins, pinheads, midgets, cannibals, giants, living skeletons, the fat, the hairy, the legless, the armless, the noseless, London had seen it all. In the Hall of Ugliness the competition was stiff. But noone had ever seen anything quite like Julia . . .

Pronounced by the most eminent physician of the day to be "a true hybrid wherein the nature of woman presides over that of the brute," Julia Pastrana stood apart from the other carnival acts. She was fluent in English, French and Spanish, an accomplished musician with an exquisite singing voice, equally at ease riding horseback and turning pirouettes--but all anyone noticed was her utterly unusual face. Alternately vilified and celebrated, Julia toured through New Orleans, New York, London, Berlin, Vienna, and Moscow, often hobknobbing with high society as she made her fame and fortune.
Beneath the flashy lights and thunderous applause lies a bright, compassionate young woman who only wants people to see beyond her hairy visage--and perhaps, the chance for love. When Julia visits a mysterious shaman in the back alleys of New Orleans, he gives her a potion and says that she'll find a man within the year. Sure enough, Julia soon meets Theodore Lent, a boyishly charming showman who catapults Julia onto the global stage. As they travel the world, the two fall into an easy intimacy, but the question of whether Theo truly cares for Julia or if his management is just a gentler form of exploitation lingers heavily with every kind word and soft embrace.
Stunningly written and deeply compelling, Orphans of the Carnival is a haunting examination of how we define ourselves and, ultimately, of what it means to be human.

  • ISBN-13: 9780385541527
  • ISBN-10: 038554152X
  • Publisher: Doubleday Books
  • Publish Date: November 2016
  • Page Count: 352
  • Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Fiction > Literary
Books > Fiction > Biographical
Books > Fiction > Historical - General

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2016-09-26
  • Reviewer: Staff

Birchs vivid novel is about the life of an infamous Mexican orphan named Julia Pastrana. The performer (based on a real person who lived from 1834 to 1860) first appeared on the carnival stage in New Orleans in the mid-1800s. She was a slight girl with delicate feet who sang, danced, and spoke several languages. Shes also described as having the face of an ape, her body covered with hair (Its not fur, she always scolded, its hair.). As in her previous novel, the Booker-nominated Jamrachs Menagerie, Birch follows a forgotten historical figure living in an age when Darwin was the rage and the boundaries of society were strict. Julia seemed an ordinary girl who worked hard to perfect her act as she traveled the world, from New York to London, Berlin to St. Petersburg. Though its arguable that shes not being exploited by the minders, rubes, and carnival folk with whom she travels, Julia accepts the dastardly marriage proposal of Theo Lent, her manager. Along the road, Julia and Theo meet many colorful people, some grand and some who cannot come to terms with what Julia is. Woven into this historical narrative is the story of a 21st-century girl called Rose, an endearing hoarder who has found a doll in a rubbish bin in London that was once a beloved possession of Julias. Rose is a memorable character, and the rest of the cast of misfits, dolls, and bad guys are just as full of nuance. Among the novels many pleasures are Birchs compelling turns of phrase, and an immersive, melancholy milieu. (Nov.)

BookPage Reviews

A sideshow performer searches for her place among humanity

It is 1854, and Mexican singer Julia Pastrana is making her way to New Orleans to seek her fortune. Raised by an old nun after being abandoned by her mother, she has a good voice, is a decent dancer and speaks three languages. But her most singular feature is her thick black hair, which covers her entire body. Her strong jaw gives her an even more ape-like appearance.

Invited to join a traveling sideshow, Julia travels from city to city, remaining veiled in public between shows so as not to cause a panic. She’s billed as Troglodyte of Ancient Days, the Ugliest Woman in the World and Mujer Osa (Lady Bear). Audiences around first America and then Europe are captivated—they don’t know whether to be horrified or charmed by this intelligent, well-spoken woman who looks something other than human.

“She was the most extraordinary being that had ever existed on the face of this ridiculous earth,” author Carol Birch writes of Julia, a real-life historical figure. “Everyone said so. They wanted to see her, they wanted to meet her, everyone came, the great, the good, the scared, bewitched, bewildered, the willing and unwilling. And they paid.”

Julia is managed by Theo Lent, a down-on-his luck showman who eventually, improbably, falls in love with her. But even after they marry, he can’t quite get over his shame, writhing with discomfort at what others must think of him, the man who sleeps with an ape.

Orphans of the Carnival is a strange, transfixing novel. The gorgeously written story moves between Julia’s story and 1980s London, where a depressed woman named Rose is stockpiling (one might say hoarding) found objects in her small flat, to the dismay of those who love her. She picks up a small, burned-looking doll that she names Tattoo, whose bittersweet significance is not revealed until the very end of the novel.

“Am I human?” Julia asks a fortune-teller. “It’s possible to be human and not know it,” the woman replies. Orphans of the Carnival is about how we can find humanity in all fellow creatures, which is surely a message worth pondering now more than ever.


This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BAM Customer Reviews