From the bestselling author of The Dovekeepers comes a spectacularly imaginative and moving new novel in the vein of The Night Circus that has been acclaimed by Jodi Picoult as ‘truly stunning: part love story, part mystery, part history, and all beauy’.
New York City, 1911. Meet Coralie Sardie, circus girl, web-fingered mermaid, shy only daughter of Professor Sardie and raised in the bizarre surroundings of his Museum of Extraordinary Things.
And meet Eddie Cohen, a handsome young immigrant who has run away from his painful past and his Orthodox family to become a photographer, documenting life on the teeming city streets. One night by the freezing waters of the Hudson River, Coralie stumbles across Eddie, who has become enmeshed in the case of a missing girl, and the fates of these two hopeful outcasts collide as they search for truth, beauty, love and freedom in tumultuous times.
I was inspired to revisit this novel after reading and reviewing Elizabeth MacNeal’s Circus of Wonders at the weekend. Regular readers will know how much I love Alice Hoffman and that The Night Circus is one of my favourite books of all time. What you might not know is that I love the age of La Belle Époque, Art Nouveau, New York City, and anything to do with the circus and freak shows. So, it stands to reason that I would fall madly in love with this incredible novel. Tucked within this wealth of aesthetic and historical details is the story of what it really means to be ‘other’ and how that difference affects us politically, culturally and psychologically. However, it also shows that, when people labelled as different come together, a powerful subculture can emerge. A subculture that rejects everyday societal norms, turning them upside down and creating different rules and markers of status? There’s also the interesting and complex issues around freak shows. Now, they horrify us. They are associated with thoughts of the Elephant Man and years of disability awareness training has left people viewing them as exploitative and cruel. However it could be that the issue is more complex and there are other ways to look at them?
The novel takes us to turn of the century NYC and we really meet the city in its formative years. While there are residential buildings, factories and the beginnings of what will be Manhattan, there are areas where it is still wilderness and it is here that Hoffman takes us to meet Eddie. He is a photographer, living in a friend’s shack in what will eventually become Queens. While out with his camera, early one morning, he sees what he thinks is a mermaid slipping through the grey and choppy dawn waters of the Hudson. She’s a strong swimmer too. Cutting through the swell with ease. However, when he sees her properly, he can see she’s a girl. What he doesn’t know is that Coralie Sardie does have a physical impairment – she has webs between her fingers and toes. This slight difference inspires her father to exploit her, keeping her separate from other children so she never questions him. She grows up uncomfortable with others, shy and ashamed of her physical difference. Her father, self-proclaimed man of science and keeper of curiosities, has an idea for Coralie. He aims to be the only showman with a real live mermaid.
Eddie is a Jewish immigrant, also brought to NYC by his father. The trauma of this journey and of losing his mother, leaves Eddie struggling to adjust. His father however, completely falls apart, making Eddie feel responsible for his parent rather than being a child. They are estranged from each other and as a result Eddie has become dislocated from his religion and culture too. The novel follows these two characters, Eddie and Coralie, as they make their way towards each other and pursue the feelings that seemed to hit them both at first sight. He’s also pursuing his own path as a photographer, rather than studying towards a profession like medicine as his father would have wanted. The work he does, particularly his photos of a fire in a sweat shop and the attractions of Coney Island, is fascinating and compelling.
Eddie’s work contributes to the historical setting and the sense of place Hoffman creates here. New York City in its infancy, already has the pull that still sends countless tourists there every year. It becomes a character in its own right, achieved by Hoffman’s historical research and the richly layered descriptions she constructs. The sights and smells of Coney Island and its fairgrounds are intoxicating and the account of a fire in a clothing sweat shop is particularly memorable. This was based on the real Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, where girls living above the workshops were trapped and jumped from the windows to their death rather than burn. This sets Eddie down the road of investigative journalism and photography, rather than art photography. What will he make of Coney Island? More importantly, what will he make of Sardie’s museum and it’s main attraction?
Coralie knows she has been groomed for her father’s museum her whole life. The webbing she has on her hands is usually hidden by gloves, but at the age of 10 she is given a birthday gift that seals her future.
‘It stood in place of honour; a large tank of water. On the bottom of the tank were shells from all over the world. From the Indian Oceans to the China Sea. Beneath that title was carved one word alone, my name, Coralie. I did not need further instructions. I understood that all of my life was mere practice for this very moment. Without being asked, I slipped off my shoes, I knew how to swim.’
Her cruel father, only seemed to see Coralie in terms of ownership and monetary value. He has been making her take freezing cold baths, and practice staying under he water as long as she could. He gives her a breathing tube for the tank, but she barely needs it since her swims in the Hudson in winter. She will now be exhibited as a mermaid, alongside other ‘freaks‘ such as a woman without arms who has been given silk butterfly wings by Sardie. There’s a ‘beast’, completely covered in hair and a woman so pale she seems translucent. After looking at freak shows as part of my undergraduate degree, my feelings about them became more complicated. Yes, of course there is an element of exploitation in a figure like Sardie and his real life counterpart, Barnum. Yet, for a lot of the exhibits, this is the first sense of freedom they’ve had and their only chance to live independently. Often locked away in their towns and villages, by parents who either didn’t want others to see them, or felt like they were protecting their child. Parents might sell their child to a man like Sardie, feeling like they would be looked after or just to make money for the rest of the family. This might be the first time they encountered a community of people with differences like them. While we might think it barbaric to ‘show’ people with disabilities, it might be the only job open to them and give them a more comfortable living than they ever imagined. Real life ‘exhibit’ Prince Randian was brought to the USA by Barnum, and was known as The Human Torso amongst other names. He was born without arms and legs, and was usually dressed in a one piece, tight fitting garment. He appeared in the controversial Tod Browning film Freaks and had a party piece of rolling and smoking a cigar. His take was that he was being paid handsomely for simply doing normal everyday activities. We have to ask the question – who is exploiting who? There is also kudos in being the most transgressive as the disability subculture turns expectations upside down.
I love this book. I enjoyed the character of Maureen – the Sardie’s housekeeper – and her love story with the wolf man. She has so much loyalty, and love for Coralie, that she stays despite Sardie’s insults and unreasonable behaviour. Being at the centre of these unusual people, we realise they have the same hopes and dreams as anyone else. Being in a group seems to give confidence to the individual characters and I loved seeing them grow into their authentic selves. There’s an acceptance of their differences, which maybe wasn’t present in their small villages and towns, where they stood out or even became a target. The performers have a complex relationship with what they do. It elevates them, thousands of people flock to see them, they are well paid and the thing that’s always been a negative part of their life, has become their meal ticket. Coralie and Eddie have had the same yearning in their childhood – they want to be free, not held to account by their fathers, their religion or their obligations. Most of all though, this is a love story and they want to be together just like any other couple.
Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.
The Body and Physical Difference by David T. Mitchell and Darren L. Snyder.
Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body by Rosemary Garland Thomson.