I admit, I’m growing tired of novels — even good ones — that turn historical figures into fictional characters. They seem to assume a sort of spurious authenticity. And although I don’t let my prejudices get in the way of my reading, I say this simply to underline how powerfully this book, an imagined life of Madame Tussaud, performed in winning me over.

“Little,” this big novel by Edward Carey is called, as is its narrator, the quickly orphaned Marie Grosholtz, waxworks impresario-to-be. She is also called “A little protest. A little insult. In any case, a little something.” “Little, scum, boil, dropping … the kitchen rat.” “The kitchen thing, creature of grease and soot, spirit of steam and flame.” “An old woman and a child both at once.” Hers is a “bad-luck face.”

It is small wonder that this apparently unlovely child, prominent of nose and chin, mostly maligned when not ignored, forms a keen affinity for things: tools, for instance; the wax heads that her mentor makes; a cupboard she briefly calls home; a doll, of course. All of these and much more Marie animates, but most of all it is the modeling wax that comes alive.

That wax can be “Anything! It can be anything! It can be: YOU!” is impressed upon Marie early on, when a certain Dr. Curtius, who sculpts organs and body parts, healthy and diseased, for a hospital in Berne, introduces her to his craft.

Through a quirk of circumstance, Curtius begins modeling heads, and soon, through another quirk, he takes his trade, and Marie, to Paris — where you and I know, if Marie doesn’t yet, trouble is brewing. It is 1770, and in the not-too-distant future there will be bodiless heads aplenty. The work of the guillotine and the work of Dr. Curtius and Marie will inevitably dovetail; but meanwhile there is a whole Parisian world, from royalty to the merchant class to the destitute, to be conjured in a credible and entertaining way, with appearances by the famous and infamous, from Rousseau and Voltaire to Marat and Robespierre.

This is a book so dense with events and so vibrant with delight in language that it’s difficult to do it justice. Suffice it to say that Carey, in the disarmingly engaging voice of his heroine, can make even a list of wax-working tools seem charmed. The processes of shaping heads and clothing waxen bodies are as vivid and involving as the intricacies of building a business, the workings of a princess’ household, the convulsions of a revolution, and the intrigues and intimacies of a cast of characters with competing claims on, and complaints against, the little outsider and keen observer in their midst.

Finally, it is the art of shaping the materials at hand, whether wax or words, into a semblance of life that Carey and his narrator share; of reflecting a moment so vividly as to seem to stop time even as it passes.

 

Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing. She lives in Wisconsin.

Little
By: Edward Carey.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 436 pages, $27.