Plot embers swirl in ‘Church of Marvels’

While cleaning New York toilets at the turn of the last century, Sylvan Threadgill makes an unexpected discovery: a newborn baby girl, abandoned in a privy, covered in filth and barely alive.

“Who would have done such a thing? The baby wasn’t just abandoned to the whims of the city streets — she hadn’t been entrusted to another’s care, or left in a well-traveled place to be discovered and rescued.

“Sylvan shivered though the night was hot and still. The baby, he knew, was meant to die.”

Leslie Parry orchestrated this scene to turn our stomachs, raise the hairs on the backs of our necks and spark a sense of righteous indignation. The heinousness of Sylvan’s discovery feels personal, much like finding an intruder in your home.

In fact, most of the settings in “Church of Marvels,” Parry’s utterly captivating first novel, have a desperate, visceral quality, teeming with lost or broken humans just trying to survive.

The story takes us from a family-operated Coney Island sideshow to a bleak, barbaric insane asylum to the city’s underground opium dens — all places that hold a morbid sense of historical fascination.

The story centers primarily on four characters: twin sisters Odile and Belle Church, whose sideshow theater has mysteriously burned to the ground; Sylvan, whose unusual appearance forces people to look at him without really seeing him; and Alphie, a young wife struggling to win the approval of her mother-in-law and the love of her drug-addicted husband, Anthony, only to find herself enmeshed in their precarious mother-son dynamic.

“Anthony talked often about his beautiful, temperamental mother: sometimes as if he longed to impress her, as if he craved her approval and admired her taste,” Parry writes.

“But other times he’d arrive at Alphie’s in a state, his eyes gone black with fury, and for the rest of the night he’d sulk so devotedly that there seemed to be no way Alphie could break the spell.”

It’s impossible to walk through these characters’ frenetic, shadowy worlds without pausing to rubberneck at someone else’s tragedy. But, as we find out, the true danger lurks in a much more unexpected place, where a guise of normalcy scarcely conceals a screaming-hot coil of resentment.

Despite the gritty and at times eccentric characters and settings, the novel is imbued with enough relatable human struggles to keep it grounded — namely, the strong if convoluted bond between family members and the desire not only to be seen but understood. This is particularly true for Odile, who has spent her life languishing in the shadow of her sword-swallowing, contortionist sister.

“Mother didn’t seem to notice that Odile was standing there at all,” Parry writes. “She just stared at the glass-topped table with its clutter of jars and bills, as if it were the only real thing in the universe.… How miserable it was, to stand there and want so much to be seen. Mother wouldn’t even look her way.”

When Belle goes missing after the fire that kills their mother, Odile heads for the city, hoping to find her sister. Odile’s move sets the story in motion and causes the characters’ lives to intersect in a way that feels completely surprising yet wholly natural.

Of course, nothing is as it seems. From page to page, Parry offers clues to help us solve the mystery, but the first time through, you’ll probably miss them. Everything from the name of an intersection to Alphie’s unusual fear of doctors hints at the truth — “the sublime in the mundane, the things you see every day and fail to understand.”

In her first novel, Parry, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has proven herself more than capable of sustaining suspense, with a succession of cliffhangers compelling us to turn the page. Like Odile, we cannot stop until we find out what has happened to Belle.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling it, but once all of the pieces have fallen into place, this book demands a second read.

Angela Lutz is in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Master of Fine Arts/creative writing program.

Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry (320 pages; HarperCollins; $26.99)