Review: The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland

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It's a little while since we've had a fiction review, and this week I've been reading The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland.

The Story & Characters

The Palace of Curiosities opens with a line that is sure to already have you hooked after the rather delectable cover: 'Before I am born, my mother goes to the circus'. The first chapter is dedicated to recounting her experience in 1831 and is a heady journey of the senses as the mother revels in a rare nervous night out with the man of her desires, the release from 'ladylike' sensibilities into the braying joy of the crowd and the stink and sensation of the circus and its acts, that are equally thrilling and oddly tragic. The thrill of the circus is soon kicked into horror as an act goes wrong that will affect the mother very personally for the rest of her life.

The chapter is stand alone, but it does a good job of setting the tone for the rest of the book as we move to follow the fortunes of her daughter Eve the 'Lion-faced girl' as she seeks out her independence and belonging. In turn we follow the story of Abel, a man washed out of the mud of the Thames, confused, forgetful and groping for his memories each day. As the two are brought together Garland builds a picture of the Victorian underworld and the profitable and at times brutal world of the Freak Show.

The story moves along their lives, switching between each protagonist at an easygoing pace that shrugs off a more rigid plot in favour of creating a series of scenes and the tone of a dark fairytale. Plot certainly happens, and you are never left adrift, and this style allows you to more easily occupy the moments of each character's lives and their inner worlds as they each gradually grow out their roots and inch towards control of their own lives, purpose and a sense of belonging. The style has been compared to Angela Carter and the comparison is one I could certainly see - there is a lot in the mix of brutality and dreamy description that reminded me of Angela carter's 'the Bloody Chamber' and Eve's mentions of the story of Bluebeard throughout the book is surely not an accident. When you click into the style of writing, it's an enjoyably gothic read.

The supporting characters are all very well realised, from Abel's difficult relationship with his best friend Alfred, and Eve's conflicted relationship with her husband and freak-show owner Josiah Arroner. My personal favourite was Lizzie, the voluptous, fierce and comforting figure who took on the role of the Whore of Babylon at the performances.

Does This Work As a Historical Novel?

Since this blog is effectively one that looks at history, I couldn't finish a review here without looking at how this fares as a historical novel. For me, it's a difficult assessment to make as I don't really think that this is a particular goal of the book, nor should it really be judged on it's historical accuracy. The Carter-esque fairy story style of the book tends to creep into the languages and characteristics, and works very well to create a certain dreamy tone, but fails to create the same sharp sense of authenticity of language and character that I find in the CJ Sansom books, for example. The language, while Victorian of course, is a little too showy and flowery at times to feel authentic, though it should be said that when characters are in their darker moments and angry this improves.
That said, the book does excel in certain scenes and themes. Eve's navigation of subservience to her husband and of respectability vs her own aching sexual awakening and need for power and independence and how she classifies this within what it means to be a 'good wife' all ring very true to the time. Abel's early life living in a crowded stinking cellar as an abattoir 'slaughter-man' and his peer's contentments and frustrations at this life also paint a brilliantly real picture of slum life. A particularly raw and tragic scene with his friend Alfred and how Alfred deals with the situation also rings painfully authentic for how many men must have coped in the harsher times. Finally the Freak-Show itself and the way the audiences are written and the downtimes in the house that all the freaks occupy feel very real.

Is It Worth a Read?

All in all I enjoyed the book and the journey it took me through. For those looking for a historical novel it holds enough good scenes in it as to be attractive, so long as you slip yourself into the frame of mind of this being a fairytale story. For those looking for tight plot, instead you would do better to relax yourselves into their fairytale tone, enjoy the slow build of the characters and be taken down the story of love and belonging. Definitely worth picking up if you'd like a change.

For more posts on freak shows....

- The Human Marvels: 'Circus Freaks and Human Oddities'
- Interpretation, Taboo and Climbing Mountains: The Problem of Frieda Pushnick's Obituary
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