The Palace of Curiosities Rosie Garland
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
In the grand tradition of carny lit, it is hard to avoid comparisons to classics like Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus or Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Luckily, Rosie Garland chooses to tell her story of human oddities in a completely different setting and with a very specific dual-narrative style with her debut novel The Palace of Curiosities. In a story about Otherness, acceptance and humanity, Garland has created some memorable characters and some brutal, absorbing scenes.
Set in Victorian England, The Palace of Curiosities freely uses magic realist tropes to create atmosphere, strangeness and charm. Garland’s strongest character, Eve begins by telling the story of her conception. A young woman goes to the circus, where while she may recognise the ‘stink of mouldy cloth, meat left to long, the mess kicked into drains’, she is aware that tonight, her ‘world is perfumed with fairy tales.’ In a sudden gruesome turn of events, the lion she is watching attacks his trainer, ‘The hyenas start to scream like women, and the sky flickers back into black’, and ‘the velvet drumbeat of her heart and the fanfare of her gasps are heralding’ the arrival of her daughter-to-be Eve, who declares that she is ‘already made. I am … everything to do with snips and snails and lion’s tails.’ Months later when Eve is born, she does not cry out. Instead, she meows and licks her paws. ‘I was a changeling and as furry as a cat’, she tells us, open and accepting of her Otherness in a way her mother is unable to be.
Eve is an incredibly arresting protagonist from the very start. She fights off her mothers attempts at shaving her to make her look ‘normal’, refusing to be bound to convention. She creates an imaginary friend for herself, a friend who promises her ‘there is a man for you with knife in hand to cut through the world’s binding. A man of blood and flesh and bone and strange in all of them’. Eve is quick to know that one day ‘I will weave my own story.’ She understands more than any one else does, that a person’s true monstrosity does not lie on the surface: ‘If you flay me, we stand equal. Beauty is truly skin-deep. We are all horrors under the skin.’
For Abel, Garland’s second protagonist, these horrors take place quite literally under the skin. Abel is unable to hurt his body, every cut - self inflicted or otherwise - resulting in ‘ragged edges of skin … drawing together.’ No matter how often or how deeply he attempts to damage his body, ‘there is no halting the knitting-up of the skin’. He suffers from a strange sort of short term amnesia, waking up each day with very few memories of the day before and only fleeting images of what his past may have been. For Abel, life is an endless string of days that seem exactly the same - the only stutter in time appears when he (again) finds out that he simply can not die.
Together, Eve and Able are the Lion Faced Girl and the Flayed Man, respectively. At a time when human differences were still displayed as oddities, marvels, ‘freaks’, the pair are just two in a string of Professor Josiah Arroner’s Astonishing Marvels, displaying themselves and their ‘skills’ to first the elite of society and then every punter who can pay to gape at them. While of course their romance seems an inevitability to the reader from the very start, it is not until about halfway through The Palace of Curiosities that the two meet. The potential to explore their relationship further is huge, and sadly remains somewhat unfulfilled.
Garland alternates between Eve and Abel’s points of view. She tells the story of each in the first person, switching between their voices with ease as they try to understand themselves, and the people around them who consider themselves to be ‘normal’. It is not the ‘Other’ who are cruel or inhumane or have dangerous secrets, but rather the characters who are accepted easily in society. One particularly horrific scene, in which two African men are beaten to an inch of their lives and are then chained on stage to be destroyed by attack dogs, Garland delivers her brutal message via Professor Arroner. When Eve questions and tries to condemn the brutality of this ‘spectacle’, Arroner says about the two men, ‘Souls? They have none. All men know they thrive on witchcraft. Savages’, and happily bets money on their survival. Eve - the Lion faced girl, the one considered more beast than woman is forced to quiet her thoughts and emotions, and remain on the peripheries, ‘an obedient puppet of a wife with stick-like limbs’.
The Palace of Curiosities is a novel with many strong points and unique, lapidary prose. Garland is an interesting, vivid storyteller with good control over her narrative - so much so, that one sometimes wishes she had let herself go wild. The Palace of Curiosities is good, but not nearly grand enough, not nearly different enough to really realise its full potential. There are many instances of a visceral horror in the book, many strange, startling moments that capture the reader easily, but there still seems to be a sense of holding back on the part of Garland, who has previously been in a post-punk gothic band, is an award-winning poet and also tours as ‘Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen, cabaret chanteuse and mistress of ceremonies’. Granted, The Palace of Curiosities features a fabulous amount of teeth and claws and the grotesque, but it does leave you hoping that in her next novel, Garland lets herself go completely and use those teeth and claws to their fullest.