Rosie Garland – The Palace of Curiosities

rosiegarland-thepalaceofcuriousitiesBefore Eve is born, her mother goes to the circus. The star attraction is a raging lion, straight from the heart of Africa. Mama swears she hears the lion sigh, just before it leaps… and when Eve is porn, the story goes, she doesn’t cry – she meows and licks her paws.

When Abel is pulled from the stinking Thames, the mudlarks are sure he is long dead. But as they search his pockets, his eyes crack open. A lucky escape or an act of black magic?

Cast out of Victorian society, Eve and Abel become The Lion Faced Girl and The Flayed Man, star performers in the Palace of Curiosities. And there begins a journey that will entwine their fates forever…

Hot on the heels of another book with a Victorian circus-esque flavour, I got to read an early ARC for The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland. While it is a debut novel, Garland is an award-winning author in other disciplines and it definitely shows in her first long-form offering. It’s a stunning piece of work, with strong themes of identity, acceptance of the Other, and a touchingly unique love story between two fabulous main characters. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the benchmark against which the rest of this year’s debuts will have to measure itself and it’s only the first Monday of the year. 2013 is certainly off to an amazing start.

Told in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of Eve and Abel, The Palace of Curiosities goes a step further to differentiate between the two narrative strands: both are told in first person, but Eve’s chapters are in the past tense, while Abel’s are in the present. This is not just a way to differentiate between the two; it also reflects Abel’s condition. While Abel’s otherness is left largely unexplained, one of its features is that he wakes up every day as a blank slate; he’s literally forgotten who he is, where he is, and what he is supposed to do. Only holding on to a strict routine and the fact that his best friend Alfred looks after him and tells him what he needs to know when he wakes, allows him to move through his days and slowly regain his memories, as if jogging them awake, only to lose them again when he goes to sleep. As a result, Abel lives in a continuous now, with no past and mostly no thoughts of the future, as such, his story can only be told in the present tense.

Due to his strange memory state, his continual present, Abel remains a mystery for much of the book. He’s a kind man, with sometimes surprising skills, since his body remembers what he can do – even if he can’t – but is also rather childlike in his innocence and helplessness. This makes him appealing, as he’s a sweet, vulnerable character in the harsh lower class world of Victorian London. The only times the reader is given glimpses of Abel’s past is through his dreams, which of course are more than just dreams. Through these we see his quest to discover the reason behind his endless resurrections and his numerous attempts to end his existence. They lend this strange, fathomless man some darker edges and only deepen his mystery. Abel’s continual struggle to regain – and keep – his memories is very much connected to a search for identity, to understand who he is, where he came from, and what his raison d’être is. If one doesn’t know their past, how can they know who they are? When Abel finds a way to anchor his memories, through writing them down or through Eve or Alfred, he becomes more distinct and stronger in his sense of self.

Eve on the other hand starts off strong and confident in her otherness. She refuses to shave her pelt and to conform; she regards herself as beautiful as she is, thanks to her imaginary companion Donkey-Skin. But during the novel, Eve slowly seems to lose herself, seems to be whittled down and robbed of her confidence by her husband, Mr Arroner. She loses Eve in being Mrs Arroner and in her desire to be loved and its only once she meets Abel that she starts to find Eve again. Once she starts to assert herself again, with the help of Lizzie, one of Arroner’s other Curiosities, and Abel, she frees herself and instead of being the Other that needs to be feared, creates an environment for herself where she is the celebrated Other; the neighbourhood mascot, instead of a freak.

Abel and Eve find each other when Abel is recruited by George to be part of Mr Arroner’s collection of human curiosities. In each other they slowly find their way back to themselves; in each other’s eyes they see the truth of themselves, not that which makes them different. It is a sweet romance, though due to Eve’s married state their feelings go unacknowledged for much of the narrative. I loved their slow dance and the air of danger that hangs around their gradual attraction. This unlikely courtship takes place under the scrutiny of the other freaks to be either helped, used to their own advantage or be ignored. The others in the household, mountainous, matronly Lizzie, the painted man George, who is covered in tattoos that tell the stories of Scheherazade and rubber boy Bill, are all fascinating in their own right, especially the first two who have larger role than young Bill. They are all outcasts, either by choice or by fate, and they all have different ways of coping with it. Within the household however, the one ‘normal’ person, Eve’s avaricious and cruel husband, Mr Arroner, is the outcast, disliked by all, except Eve; in this strange house, he is the odd one out.

Garland’s writing is exquisite, feeling both contemporary to its setting, without feeling dated and incredibly atmospheric. The sights, sounds, and smells of the Victorian streets are evoked in full measure, through both a keen ear for speech and dialogue and wonderful descriptive passages. My one complaint here would be that it didn’t feel set beyond Victorian Britain. The story is ostensibly set in London, but it could have been set in another large British town as easily, as it didn’t seem firmly rooted in its London environment.

The Palace of Curiosities is a curious beast; part fantasy, part historical fiction, part magical (sur)realism, it’s all parts amazing. For such a slim book, it contains a big story, with deep themes and wonderful characters. It was an enchanting read, which deeply impressed me. I think this will be one of the must-read books on 2013, though not everyone might be as taken with it as I am. The book will be released in the UK at the end of March. Be sure to pick a copy and discover the delights of The Palace of Curiosities for yourself.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.