Synopsis: Before Eve is born, her mother goes to the circus. She buys a penny twist of coloured sugar and settles down to watch the heart-stopping main attraction: a lion, billed as a monster from the savage heart of Africa. Mama swears she hears the lion sigh, just before it leaps…and nine months later when Eve is born, 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. As they search his pockets to divvy up the treasure, his eyes crack open and he coughs up a stream of black water. But how has he survived a week in that thick stew of human waste?
Cast out by Victorian society, Eve and Abel find succour from an unlikely source. They soar to fame as The Lion Faced Girl and The Flayed Man, star performers in Professor Josiah Arroner’s Palace of Curiosities. And there begins a journey that will entwine their fates forever.
Title: Palace of Curiosities
Author: Rosie Garland
Part historical romance, part surreal fantasy, Rosie Garland brings to life a unique, unforgiving and, at times, horrifying vision of the Victorian freak show. We are introduced to the novel with Eve’s story, which I have say I took a while to warm to. This may be because the earlier chapters are a bit slow, or because the tale opens with animal (and human) cruelty. But as the reader is introduced to Abel, The Flayed Man; and as the two characters stories intertwine, I began to really enjoy the book. By the end I was completely enthralled by Abel and Eve’s strange and unique world.
I found the prose difficult to get used to at first, it is rich with Victorian antiquity and the language can, at times, feel dated. But, as you get used to the tone you begin to appreciate – even love – the way Garland depicts London at the time; the sights, sounds and smells are portrayed with wonderfully descriptive passages.
I absolutely adored Abel for two reasons: firstly, he’s a really nice guy (and he reminds me a little of my dad!). Secondly, I loved how Garland emphasised his ‘condition’ with the use of tense. With alternating chapters, both narrative strands are written in first person, but Eve’s chapters are written in past tense, while Abel’s are written in the present tense. His ‘otherness’ leads him to wake up every morning forgetting who he is. He lives in the present, describing events as they happen to him. As such, the use of present tense is subtle but depicts his state of mind beautifully.
The Palace of Curiosities is a wonderful tale of unconventional characters set in the unforgiving, cruel and murky backdrop of Victorian London. A great read and one I will definitely be recommending to friends.