Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch (first published in 2016 by Penguin Random House Publishers)
Julia Pastrana is a talented young lady; a talented singer and graceful dancer. An orphan taken in by a wealthy Spanish household in Mexico, she always draws a crowd.
However, this is not only the result of her talents, but also of her body and face, which are completely covered in hair, giving the unfortunate woman a beast-like appearance.
Things change for Julia when she accepts an invitation to go to America to perform; to be on the stage demonstrating her talents (and showing her face). Here, she meets others who are similarly skilled – an odd family of outcasts.
After travelling a great deal and showcasing her face, Julia is taken under the management of Theo, who promises to make her rich and famous.
While this happens and Julia’s wealth and reputation increase, she remains the other, always veiled or ridiculed, different and yet longing to be ‘beautiful’.
Despite all the hardships she has faced, things seem to normalise when Theo proposes to her, and she glimpses a normal life; being loved.
Orphans of the Carnival is such a clever social commentary. In Julia’s world, being different means ridicule, alienation, ignorance and discomfort. Society stands by while a young woman is treated like a material commodity, her humanity removed and discarded, only because her face is different to her voyeurs.
It really is a powerful look at how humanity treats its own; how standards are imposed regardless of circumstance and consequence.
Apart from the eye-opening look at discrimination, Carol Birch has given the reader an intimate, beautiful story of loss and longing, showing a world in which we must question how far one can go to fit in and be happy.
Orphans of the Carnival is a thoroughly moving story and riveting page turner.