It is 1854, and Mexican singer Julia Pastrana is making her way to New Orleans to seek her fortune. Raised by an old nun after being abandoned by her mother, she has a good voice, is a decent dancer and speaks three languages. But her most singular feature is her thick black hair, which covers her entire body. Her strong jaw gives her an even more ape-like appearance.
Invited to join a traveling sideshow, Julia travels from city to city, remaining veiled in public between shows so as not to cause a panic. She’s billed as Troglodyte of Ancient Days, the Ugliest Woman in the World and Mujer Osa (Lady Bear). Audiences around first America and then Europe are captivated—they don’t know whether to be horrified or charmed by this intelligent, well-spoken woman who looks something other than human.
“She was the most extraordinary being that had ever existed on the face of this ridiculous earth,” author Carol Birch writes of Julia, a real-life historical figure. “Everyone said so. They wanted to see her, they wanted to meet her, everyone came, the great, the good, the scared, bewitched, bewildered, the willing and unwilling. And they paid.”
Julia is managed by Theo Lent, a down-on-his luck showman who eventually, improbably, falls in love with her. But even after they marry, he can’t quite get over his shame, writhing with discomfort at what others must think of him, the man who sleeps with an ape.
Orphans of the Carnival is a strange, transfixing novel. The gorgeously written story moves between Julia’s story and 1980s London, where a depressed woman named Rose is stockpiling (one might say hoarding) found objects in her small flat, to the dismay of those who love her. She picks up a small, burned-looking doll that she names Tattoo, whose bittersweet significance is not revealed until the very end of the novel.
“Am I human?” Julia asks a fortune-teller. “It’s possible to be human and not know it,” the woman replies. Orphans of the Carnival is about how we can find humanity in all fellow creatures, which is surely a message worth pondering now more than ever.