In Parry’s colorful debut novel, seedy corners of late 19th-century New York come alive—and no one is exactly who they seem to be.
Odile and Isabelle Church are mourning Coney Island’s famous Church of Marvels, a theater and sideshow act that has recently burned to the ground with their mother inside. Both girls had been performers, but after the fire, Isabelle disappears into shadowy Manhattan. When Odile receives an alarming letter from her sister, she plunges into the city, determined to save her and bring her home. Along the way she encounters Sylvan the Dogboy, a bare-knuckle boxer who has recently discovered an abandoned baby in a privy; Mrs. Bloodworth, who helps pregnant girls arrange adoptions under the table; and a group of children at the underground gambling parlor the Frog and Toe who know more about her sister’s fate than she does. At the same time that Odile’s search unfolds, the book also follows Alphie, who has woken up at the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island and must try to remember the circumstances that led her to be committed to that place of abuse and humiliation. Parry’s writing is smooth and descriptive, and she imbues these misfit characters and shabby, sometimes horrifying settings with energy and depth. But the search that drives the story loses steam about halfway through the book; by cutting back and forth between several different narratives, Parry makes it harder for the reader to connect with these flawed, injured characters until there's a great revelation that brings all the stories together. This surprise revitalizes the novel but also makes its shortcomings more apparent.
Beautifully written, Parry’s imaginative novel is most successful when exploring the limitations and complexities of gender and sexuality during its historical period.