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by Ellen Bryson

Pub Date: June 22nd, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9192-2
Publisher: Henry Holt

A man living among the oddest specimens of humanity questions his inner desires.

It must have been something, America at the end of the Civil War, and debut novelist Bryson imagines it beautifully in her inspired drama about freaks, showmen and the forces that twist our insides. Opening just after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the curtains part to reveal a sideshow within a spectacle, namely the singular attraction that was Barnum’s American Museum in New York City, owned by narcissistic showman P.T. Barnum. Bryson’s narrator is no mundane manifestation: The titular Fortuno has occupied Barnum’s stable as The World’s Thinnest Man for a decade, playing alongside his gargantuan friend Matina and a host of other “Curiosities.” Fortuno even elucidates the class system among “our kind,” cataloguing True Prodigies that diverge inexorably from humanity; Prodigies, like himself, gifted with implausible proportions; and Exotics whose talents accent their peculiarities. “Lowlifes to codfish aristocrats, they’re all alike,” Matina scoffs. “People want to feel shock, envy, and delight. They just use us to fill them up. Which, by the way, is an impossible task.” But Bartholomew is a wonderful character who doesn’t struggle against his self-image but revels in it, challenging audiences with his bravado. “When you look at me, can’t you understand yourself a bit better?” he asks. “The only difference between us is that I do not hide my inner self.” Into this heady stew Bryson pours both mystery and a love story. Fortuno’s curiosity is piqued late one evening when his master furtively escorts a veiled woman into the palace of marvels. Soon after, tempted by the lure of a new costume, Bartholomew agrees to conspire with his manipulative employer, venturing into Chinatown on secret missions and following Iell, the veiled woman, whose secrets may be the most startling of all her brethren.

A rich tapestry of romance, illusory science, criminal trickery and human intrigue. Let the show begin.