The Palace of Curiosities, Rosie Garland‘s debut novel, is an assured and magical novel. Her poetic output provides the writing’s lyricism and her involvement in cabaret and Goth gives her an eye for the strange. Told from two perspectives, that of Abel and Eve, it explores freak shows but also the coming into being for an identity.
To get this out of the way quickly, it does have the shades of Angela Carter: not only Nights at the Circus but also The Passion of New Eve. Not only does it takes some of the carnivalesque of the former, it intersects the arguments in the making of identity through memory and understanding.
On a visit to the circus, Sarah is seen by a lion on the night that Eve is conceived. Her daughter is born looking like a kitten and is largely hidden away. Sold to Josiah Arroner – impressario, chauvanist and charlatan – she finds herself as the main attraction from the private parlours to the freak show stage, having been promised marriage.
Meanwhile Abel is dredged up from the river and becomes a slaughter man, showing to himself that he has some facility in being able to dispatch quickly and cleanly. His memory plays tricks on him and he loses his job. Moving on, he discovers that he can repair watches and also heals after being seriously cut. When his friendship falls apart, he moves on and is enticed into the circus by the Tattooed Man.
Eve and Abel meet as friends, coming together in a sense of need rather than anything else. Both find ways of constructing their own identities from faulty memories and defining themselves as their ‘monstrosity’ and difference rather than against it. Both are active; Eve more so than Abel. Abel struggles with piecing what he can from fractured reminiscences. Drawing from his Biblical namesake, he begins down the same road but his facility with mechanics helps him turn this into something different: collapsing new humans? Eve, as her name suggests, is able to help herself move on and to complete helping Abel.
The book extends a carnival argument that somehow the mundane is the weird or the horrific in its way of not being able to cope with anything which is not in its limits. It uses its oddness as a way of moving forwards; thrusting it forward as front. It is comfortable in its own skin. It invites us to question basic social assumptions, not necessarily as merely a safety valve, but a darker mirror. We cannot view or perceive it as it is so we must look at the mirror slightly askance.
The Palace of Curiosities completes itself and gives off hope without being twee. Slight and delicate are adjectives which come to mind but they do not describe this novel adequately but they do begin describing the quality of the writing. I would be curious to read more of her fiction as it comes out but this is a very good first novel.