This was a story that I found fascinating and horrifying, mostly because it’s true.  

orphans-of-the-carnivalJulia Pastrana was one of the most famous “freaks” of the 19th Century, captivating and horrifying audiences across the world as the singing and dancing ape/bear woman.

She was famous for the long dark hair that covered her body – a condition now known as hypertrichosis terminalis – and for the ape-like appearance of her face, mostly because of the crooked extra set of teeth that distorted her mouth.

A native Mexican, she joined a travelling freak show in New Orleans, immediately becoming the star of the show.

She later married her manager, Theo Lent, and became pregnant, but both she and their son died days after Theo Jr was born.

Theo then had them stuffed and mounted, and he toured with their corpses for many years.

Julia Pastrana

Birch, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her book Jamrach’s Menagerie, spends quite a lot of time inside Theo’s angst-ridden head, which becomes a bit tiresome.

Also threaded through is the poignant story of Rose, a modern-day collector of discarded and unloved relics.

Overall, it’s a heartbreaking story, and it’s genuinely horrifying because it’s true.

The final coda I found out online: she remained a scientific curiosity long after her death and was finally buried in her native Mexico only three years ago.

This book was published in October 2016