What does it mean to be human?
In 2013, the body of Julia Pastrana was buried in her home state of Sinaloa, Mexico, more than 150 years after she died from a postpartum infection. Before she was finally laid to rest, her carefully preserved corpse carried on a version of the career she had known in life. Born with a rare condition that gave her thick hair on her face and body, Pastrana had traveled the United States and Europe as a human oddity, and people still paid to gawp at her body after her death. This is fertile material for a storyteller, of course, and familiar territory for Birch. Her last book, Jamrach’s Menagerie (a Man Booker Prize finalist in 2011), follows a boy hired to care for exotic animals in 19th-century London. Both novels explore the Victorian taste for the strange and the disturbing. Julia arrives in the U.S. during what might be called a golden age for freak shows, and this novel is full of singular performers. Birch is careful, though, to render them as actual people. Julia herself embodies the disconnect between appearances—or what we think we can learn from appearances—and reality that runs through the book. She is billed as a human-animal hybrid, but she sings with grace. What thrills the audience is the contrast between her simian face and the very human, recognizably feminine, voice that comes out of it. Birch’s prose is, throughout, cautious and quiet. Eventually, though, her efforts to avoid the sensational become a liability. Beneath the surface, Julia just isn’t terribly interesting, and neither are the secondary characters that surround her. The narrative succeeds in giving readers a sense of how tedious it is to be a traveling act, but this doesn’t exactly make for a spellbinding tale, and Julia’s own reflections on her unique life aren’t terribly interesting. Theodore Lent—the man who will become her husband, her manager, and the custodian of her corpse—adds some drama, but his introduction comes late in the book. And the modern-day story woven into Julia’s distracts without adding anything.
Rich material. Wan execution.