When Sylvan Threadgill, a 19-year-old “night-soiler,” discovers a newborn in the muck of a Manhattan tenement’s privy one night, he hides the baby in his knapsack. Not sure what to do with the discarded child, his instinct — to reunite her with her people — becomes the theme of this stunning debut novel.

Orphaned at 5, dubbed “Dogboy” because of his unknown but obviously mixed heritage, Sylvan survives in 1895 New York by cleaning outhouses and competing in street fights. On his quest to find the baby’s mother, Sylvan crosses paths with three equally displaced misfits: Odile Church, a 17-year-old carnival worker who has fled Coney Island in search of her sister; her sister, Belle, a shape shifter and sword swallower who has left for New York after fire destroyed the carnival and killed their mother, and Alphie, a woman who wakes one day to find herself alone and chained to a line of other women on Blackwell Island’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

The novel, “Church of Marvels,” goes back and forth between these vivid characters as questions build and their paths converge. How did the fire start? Why did Belle leave Coney Island? Will Sylvan find the baby’s mother? How did Alphie end up at an insane asylum? Will her husband rescue her? How has Belle lost the ability to speak?

From the first sentence to the last, this novel is rich with mystery and atmosphere. Author Leslie Parry takes us into opium dens and apothecary shops. She introduces us to wily barkeeps, unwed mothers, colorful raconteurs, vaudeville actors, dragon chasers and Jenny-sweeters. You can hear the carnival barkers of Coney Island, smell the muddy streets of turn-of-the-century New York and feel the agony of the dispossessed: the opium addicts, the feral children, the prostitutes, the depressed, the unwanted, the unclaimed. Along these windy streets and dark alleys we follow the fascinating and intersecting paths of four hurting but big-hearted heroes.

It is a mesmerizing journey. Parry releases details so artfully that halfway through, the book is impossible to put down. Chapters clip along short and fast, like characters glimpsing one another between buildings until, at last, they collide.

When Odile and Belle were young, just starting out in the circus, their mother would tell them: “All great shows … depend on the most ordinary objects. We can be a weary, cynical lot — we grow old and see only what suits us, and what is marvelous can often pass us by. … But life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confound turns.”

“Church of Marvels” is rich with the uncommon and strange; it is full of odd and confounding turns. It is, simply, marvelous.

 

Christine Brunkhorst, a Minneapolis writer and reviewer, teaches English at St. Thomas Academy.