What do two twin sisters who star in a Coney Island sideshow, a woman whose mother-in-law may have had her committed to an insane asylum, and a sanitation worker who finds an orphaned baby girl while completing his rounds one night have in common? The question sounds like the set up to a rather ghoulish joke, and yet untangling this mystery forms the basis of Leslie Parry’s dazzling debut, Church of Marvels.
Set in 1895, Church of Marvels takes readers deep into the shadowy underworld of turn-of-the-century New York City and its fringes. It is a story of hardscrabble lives intersecting in the most shocking ways—a story that is sometimes quite ugly but often made beautiful by its colorful cast of characters. This is not a novel with a single heart to it, but rather a chorus of four, and they are engaged in a scavenger hunt where their very salvation is at stake. To say any more would do a disservice to the devilish twists and legitimately shocking surprises that Parry has plotted for her readers. This is a book best entered in the dark, so when its revelations unfold, they are all the more dazzling.
Despite its historical setting, Parry’s world-building and character crafting are so strong that Church of Marvels feels fresh and timely, a thoughtful and satisfying modern work dressed up with all the bells and whistles of an old-fashioned Victorian romp. At times it reads like a Sarah Waters novel—with the compassion and cunning that implies—set in America. Utterly electrifying, this is the kind of novel readers will race through, only to turn the final page feeling ever so slightly heartbroken that the story has reached its end. Let’s hope that Parry has plenty more tricks up her sleeve.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Parry about Church of Marvels.