To enter a freak show, one has to either suspend one’s disbelief or spend the entire time trying to work out how the acts have been created. The same goes of reading a novel largely built on magical realism. I’d suggest that the former will provide you with an interesting experience, the latter will prove frustrating and largely fruitless. And, after all, isn’t all fiction reading – to some extent – about suspending your idea of what the world looks like and entering someone else’s vision? If, on opening Rosie Garland’s debut novel ‘A Palace of Curiosities’, you hand yourself over to her view of Victorian London, you’ll have an interesting time, indeed.
The novel is dual narrated by Eve and Abel. In the first chapter, Eve’s mama goes on a date to the circus with Bert. They sit on the front benches. During the performance, a lion – Django – ‘is hauled out…It has been beaten bald as an old carpet. Its face is swiped with ancient scratches and one flank sports a hand’s-breath of dull pink skin.’ The lion sits, staring between Eve’s mama and his handler before the crowd begin to heckle him:
The lion ignores them all and opens his mouth wide, gusting Mama with a reeking gale of dead breath. She clasps her hand over her nose, but it is too late. Deep in her belly, the clot of blood that will be me in under an hour has smelled it, too.
The lion goes on to maul his trainer to death and Eve’s mama has sex with Bert in an alleyway on the way home in order to conceive Eve – ‘to flush me out’.
When Eve is born, she’s covered in a ‘thick pelt of fur’, which her mother shaves regularly. Eventually Eve’s imaginary friend/conscience Donkey-Skin convinces her that her mother ‘doesn’t want a baby…She wants a piglet’ and when Eve is ‘old enough’ and ‘tall enough’ she smacks ‘the razor from her hand’.
I stood in front of the looking glass and admired myself. My moustache wormed across my lip, the tips lost in the crease behind my ears. My eyebrows met over the bridge of my nose and spread like wings up the side of my forehead. My chin sprouted a beard the colour of combed flax, reaching to my little breasts.
At this point, Eve leaves the house and is treated horrifically on a visit to the zoo. Not long after, ‘Josiah Arroner. Amateur Scientist. Gentleman of Letters. Entrepreneur’ appears and whisks her away to be his wife. It seems that everyone bar Eve can see through her new husband and the nods to Bluebeard that Garland gives here are appropriate as Arroner has her locked up and performing for him in no time at all.
Meanwhile, we’ve met Abel, lying on the banks of the Thames having been fished out of the water. He’s dead and the crowd is looting his possessions.
At that moment my body chooses to unseal itself: eyes crack open, mouth gapes and I cough black water. They spring away: the corpse they thought I was is suddenly too lively for comfort.
Abel, it turns out, is a slaughter-man. He works with his friend Alfred, who he also lives with in an overcrowded lodging. Every morning Abel has to recall who he is, where he is, what he does and who his friends are. Abel’s memory loss is caused by a much more significant issue though, one that some would describe as magical and others as a curse. It’s an issue that begins to be revealed during the scenes in the slaughterhouse. Scenes that I mention, not only because of significance they come to have to the plot, but also because they are some of the most vividly written scenes in the book. Even as a vegetarian of 20 years, I couldn’t help but admire the dexterity in both Abel and his creator’s work.
So, the scene is set for some weird and wonderful but also some dark and disturbing events. Garland shows the squalor of Victorian London – the living and working conditions for the poor; what passed as entertainment (there’s a very grim scene towards the end that Eve tries not to watch but even the limited information we are given is enough to create horrific images in our mind), and the treatment of women.
(I had a brief discussion on Twitter with Rachael Beale (@FlossieTeacake) who said she ‘was surprised at how much I warmed to Eve – normally completely loathe heroines that passive’. It seems to me that Eve is a product of her time and circumstances and eventually she takes drastic action to escapes her chains.)
I highly recommend ‘The Palace of Curiosities’. There are moments where I felt it dragged a little – what should’ve been key scenes were slightly overdone – but, if you allow yourself to believe in the dark and mysterious recesses of our world, then this is well worth a few hours of your time.
Thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.