Orphans of the Carnival tells the story of Julia Pastrana, a woman born in the 1830s. Julia was a very talented young woman who could sing, dance, and act. She also happened to be covered in a thick layer of hair all over her face and body that led to her being sold into a carnival freak show and labelled as the bear-lady, the human orangutan, and various other names that were made up mainly to sell tickets to her shows. Carol Birch takes the true facts of Julia’s story, from her early shows, to her rise up the ranks of celebrity, and eventually to her marriage and pregnancy and the disturbing truth of what happened after she died, and she fictionalises a narrative around it. She brings a long forgotten character centre stage and vividly imagines what it felt like to be a ‘freak’ in the 1800s.
Julia is a well imagined character, and there are many moments in the novel when we connect with her in the way Birch is hoping we will. The final third, in particular, hammers home the story of how we treat those who are different to us. And when Julia longs for a normal life, when she craves acceptance, when she struggles to believe that people can see beyond her appearance, most readers will find at least something to relate to.
Problematically, though, Orphans of the Carnival does seem to rely too heavily on a concept that it also seems to warn readers against; fascination with the ‘freaks’ and a focus on what makes them other. At times, particularly early on when the author is trying to grab our attention, the reader might feel a bit like those people in the crowd back in 1830s carnivals – staring, unable to take your eyes off those people who are so much worse off than you. Many of the characters feel slightly stereotyped, and the attempt to give them all a well-mannered and joyful character just doesn’t ring true. The author seems stuck between presenting the so-called freaks as perfectly happy ordinary people and also showing how harsh society treated them. Both were probably true, but there is a lack of plausibility in the way this version of the story is told.
Any Cop?: Despite the shortcomings mentioned, Julia’s story will still stir the emotions. And when Birch focuses in on her and her husband, and lets the supporting cast sink into the background, there are some moments of magic. The final section, in which Julia’s ‘life after death’ becomes the narrative drive, shows just how strong this novel could’ve been.