The lives of a 1930s circus performer and a 1950s runaway daughter intersect at an upstate New York horse farm.
Wiseman’s (Coal River, 2015, etc.) fourth novel opens in 1931, as Lilly Blackwood gazes out at her family's horse farm from a window in the attic she is never allowed to leave. Her hyperreligious mother views Lilly as a monster and a punishment for some undefined sin. Her father visits her and has given her a pet cat, but he does nothing to liberate her. We learn the nature of Lilly’s deformity—albinism—when, on her 10th birthday, her mother, in her father’s absence, sells her to Barlow Brothers’ Circus. Lilly grows up among the sideshow freaks, exhibited first as the Ice Princess from Another Planetand later as The Albino Medium. Her enslavement is brutally enforced by Merrick, the embittered sideshow manager. Fortunately, Lilly’s unusual affinity for animals endears her to Cole, Barlow’s elephant trainer, and she advances to the circus proper as an elephant rider. She marries Cole and becomes pregnant. In the alternating '50s chapters, Julia, now 18, fled Blackwood Manor horse farm at 15 to escape her dysfunctional mother, clearly also Lilly’s mother. A hardscrabble three years among the working poor ends when her mother dies and Julia inherits Blackwood. (Her father, also clearly Lilly’s father, is already dead.) Julia’s story is primarily a quest to understand her parents’ failure to provide “unconditional love.” As Blackwood's new owner, Julia adopts horse-friendly policies, such as allowing foals to be nursed by their own mothers. In an apparent authorial ploy to build suspense, an inordinate number of pages are taken up with Julia’s meticulous search of Blackwood Manor’s many musty rooms and their mustier contents. But readers will have long figured out the answers to Julia’s main query: is that albino in circus garb, pictured in those old newspaper clippings, related to her, and if so, how? Too much effort is expended on set dressing in both narratives and not enough on crafting a convincing back story to explain the parents’ criminal behavior.
Exalts logistics over logic.