Friday 7 October 2016

Review ~ Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch (Audio)

September 2016

A bit of blurb..

Julia Pastrana is the singing and dancing marvel from Mexico, heralded on tours across nineteenth-century Europe as much for her talent as for her rather unusual appearance. Yet few can see past the thick hair that covers her: she is both the fascinating toast of a Governor's ball and the shunned, revolting, unnatural beast, to be hidden from children and pregnant women. 

But what is her wonderful and terrible link to Rose, collector of lost treasures in an attic room in modern-day south London? In this haunting tale of identity, love and independence, these two lives will connect in unforgettable ways.

My thoughts about the book..

Re-imagining the life of someone like Julia Pastrana, and for the author to do justice to this remarkable young woman, must have been filled with huge difficulties, as I can imagine that the story was as emotional to write, as it was to read.

Julia Pastrana was born in Mexico in the mid nineteenth century and had the misfortune to be born with a medical condition called hypertrichosis lanuginosa, which made her an object of curiosity all her life. Passed from one exploitative person to another, Julia finds that her only real place of safety is to be amongst those other sad individuals who make up the grotesque and imperfect who ply the circus and carnival routes of mid-nineteenth century America. And yet, as the story progresses and we get to know Julia, we find that she is so much more than her appearance suggests.. She is fluent in three languages, is a delightful singer and dancer and is also a warm and generous person. It is the world at large that is Julia’s enemy and her almost unbelievable struggle to succeed is what gives this story its distinct appeal.

Running alongside Julia’s extraordinary story is that of Rose, a modern day hoarder who lives in a flat in London surrounded by tat and with a life filled with regrets and indecision. No two women could be any more different and yet, as the story progresses, we see how their connection plays out within the wider context of the story.

I listened to this story over 14 hours, which is the length of the unabridged version on Audible, I agree that’s a remarkable length of time but, it must be said, I was never bored, and in fact, I eagerly looked forward to my listening periods, when in the company of narrator, Helen Johns, I entered Julia’s world. The narrator really gives this story an added dimension, her story telling skills are very good, and her ability to give each character their unique voice ensured that they all came truly alive. However, it was her interpretation of Julia which will stay with me for a very long time. She captured the horror and the degradation and the downright eccentricity of Julia’s world to perfection. I appreciate that the power of this remarkable story is largely down to the words that the author has so competently written, but for me, this narrator really gave the book its heart and soul.

Orphans of the Carnival is a remarkable novel and is definitely a story that will stay with me for a very long time.

Best Read with ... A cup of Julia's favourite hot chocolate..

About the Author

Carol Birch is the author of ten previous novels, including Scapegallows (2008) and Turn Again Home (2003) which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. She has also won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the David Higham Award for Best First Novel. Jamrach's Menagerie was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011 and the London Book Award.

Carol Birch

My thanks to for the opportunity to listen to this book and also to Francesca at Midas for the invitation to listen to and review Orphans of the Carnival.


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