Book review: Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

(image courtesy Allen & Unwin Australia)

 

Humanity is, in many ways, an army of conformist clones.

Look the right way, talk the right way, act the right the way and acceptance as a fully-fledged member of the human race will be conferred upon you, no questions asked.

But dare to look even a skerrick different from the norm, whether by an accident of birth or design and you will find yourself looked upon, even in this occasionally enlightened age, with suspicion, bewilderment, or outright scorn.

It’s a reality many of us don’t have to deal with but in Orphans of the Carnival by C Birch, this place of societal rejection, this realm of the Other, is a constant state of being for people like mid-19th-century Mexican Indian Julia Pastrana, a woman of immense singing and dancing talent, and possessor of a vibrant joie de vivre, who happens to be covered from head to toe in thick hair (it is not fur as she is at pains to point out) and resemble, in many peoples’ minds, an ape of some kind.

“When they’d gone, she tore off the veil and tossed it onto the bed. She was dazed. Three weeks and she’d be on a real stage in a theatre. What have I done? She got under the net and lay down on the narrow bed with her hands over her face, moaning softly. I should have gone back to the mountains, she thought.” (P.14)

In some ways Julia, a real woman who lived and died as a object of cruel circus-like curiosity, was fortunate in that she was born into an age where the odd, the strange and the downright freaky were accorded at least some element of respect. Perhaps respect is too strong a word for it; people were morbidly fascinated by anyone who looked different to the norm, and paid good money to see dwarves, “pinheads”, people missing limbs etc as travelling shows and circuses.

It was not in any way shape or form a kind of acceptance, with these shows often greeted with taunting epithets and accusations of being the devil’s handiwork or an act, bizarrely, of moral indecency. (A pregnant Julia finds her run of musical comedy shows curtailed in Leipzig, Germany when doctors in the town express the opinion that simply gazing upon her could corrupt an unborn child’s physical appearance or moral behaviour in the womb.)

But, in the right hands, and Julia is fortunate that she is taken in by people who treat her decently, even if she is at best, even to the theatre impresario, Theodore Lent, who marries her, nothing more than a mealticket, or better yet, a path to riches and glory; as a performer who travels from provincial Mexico through the United States and Europe, meeting royalty and a legion of curious onlookers along the way, Julia is afforded at least some modicum of possibility for a reasonable life.

And yet as Birch makes achingly clear in her luminously poetic prose, which glistens on the page with a loveliness that will have you glorying once again in the beauty of the written word, Julia might have many things – friendship from the limited few who see her as she truly is (a person, not an oddity), money and the chance to make something of herself, but time and again, she fails to gain what she wants most which is true acceptance.

She is forever the Other, a deviance from the norm, an outlier on the very narrow corridor of acceptability that defines what is right and what is not and no amount of parlour tricks, singing and dancing, or charming appearances at a slew of society balls where she is too often the star paid entertainment rather than an anonymous attendee, ever comes close to changing that.

 

 

And yet as Birch makes achingly clear in her luminously poetic prose, which glistens on the page with a loveliness that will have you glorying once again in the beauty of the written word, Julia might have many things – friendship from the limited few who see her as she truly is (a person, not an oddity), money and the chance to make something of herself, but time and again, she fails to gain what she wants most which is true acceptance.

She is forever the Other, a deviance from the norm, an outlier on the very narrow corridor of acceptability that defines what is right and what is not and no amount of parlour tricks, singing and dancing, or charming appearances at a slew of society balls where she is too often the star paid entertainment rather than an anonymous attendee, ever comes close to changing that.

Birch beautifully and wrenchingly portrays Julia’s weird limbo existence where she experiences everything from outright revulsion (even from her own husband who both loves and reviles her) to condescending curiosity to those rare moments of unqualified, unconditional love and friendship from the likes of A-list actress Friedrike and Hermann Otto, who make her the toast of Vienna and grant a rare degree of, sadly fleeting, normalcy.

Hers is not a happy world although Julia does her utmost to make it most, forming friendships with servants when it is not, once again, the done thing, glorying in the beauty of fallen snow or Russian pastries and singing and dancing with a naturalness and charm that confirm she is every bit as human as anyone else, and perhaps more so, given how she rarely gives in to the petty jealousies and opprobrium that the more acceptable members of society engage in with an all-too-willing propensity.

“‘Theo’ she said later in their room, ‘You knew I was going to perform. You brought my guitar.’
‘Of course I did, dear.’
‘How much did they pay us?’ she asked.
He laughed.
‘Theo! It’s not funny. You should tell me these things.’
‘Come on, Julia, you know you’re not interested in all that.’
‘I thought this was a social visit,’ she said. ‘But I find I’m the paid entertainment as usual.'” (P. 263)

Julia’s story, which takes up much of the novel’s length, is given a modern corollary, one which is cleverly and movingly linked to the events of the nineteenth century, in Rose, a woman who invests broken dolls and toys with humanity, filling her rented flat overseen by her sleazy married landlord and sometime lover Laurie, with all the discards she finds on her wanderings around her blighted neighbourhood.

She too is treated with disdain and revulsion even by her those who begin short-lived relationships with her; only well-meaning fellow renter Adam, who too cannot surmount Rose’s understandable barriers of protective isolation and emotional walling off, treats her as a real person worthy of love and respect.

While Rose’s story doesn’t resonate as vividly as Julia’s and their placing in the same book doesn’t always have the desired effect of showing up the continued inability of humanity to accept and love the different and the unusual, having these two women share their tales of Otherness is powerful and deeply emotionally-resonant.

Anyone who has ever felt themselves on the outer, consigned to the margins of society and acceptability, whether in whole or in part, will find much to identify with in Birch’s exquisitely well-written book which does not thrust the polemic rattle in our face so much as allow the powerful story of Others like Julia and Rose to illustrate how twisted and perverse otherwise decent people can be.

Society has come far in many respects but as Orphans of the Carnival makes clear, until we can unreservedly accept people like Julia as inalienably human, which of course she very much is, often more so than her self-righteous detractors, there is still quite a way to go.

 

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