Monday, May 2, 2011

little people review

Review by Carmel Bird

of novel Little People by Jane Sullivan

This is a prize-winning novel, runner-up in the 2010 CAL-Scribe Fiction prize for a novel by a writer over 35 years of age. It blends the powerful theme of dogged maternal love with the extraordinary world of P.T.Barnum’s freak shows. I once visited the circus museum in San Antonio, Texas, and for a long time I looked in amazement at the exquisite miniature carriage of General Tom Thumb. So delicate, so doll-like, so sad. The sight of it brought home to me the everyday reality of the strange life of a human being who was not just from another time, but from a branch of the human race that had fashioned a form of success out of disability and adversity.

The novel, a darkly romantic fairytale with fantastic elements of nineteenth century gothic is set in Australia in 1870. The central character is Mary Ann who starts out, Bronte-like, as a governess, but with something more Dickensian-grotesque lying in wait for her. Pregnant to the father of her charges, she desperately seeks an abortion in the hideous back streets of Melbourne. When she is unable to go through with it she finds herself in the river where she rescues someone who appears to be a drowning child. This person is, however, none other than Tom Thumb, the world famous circus dwarf who is touring the country with his troupe. Mary Ann has fallen into very strange company indeed. Is she safe, or has she descended from the frying pan into the fire?

In an historical note the author explains that the troupe did visit Australia for a nine-month tour in 1870, and that Mary Ann’s story is, however, pure fiction. The two elements of history and fiction are woven together to produce the fabric of the action-filled story. The novel unfolds in chapters that are narrated by Mary Ann, while there are occasional sections narrated by other characters, namely the various midgets. (The correct term ‘pituitary dwarfism’ is given in the historical note, but not used in the body of the text.) Each section, presented as a ‘sideshow’, is prefaced by a black and white photograph of the relevant midget. The pictures are poignant, as well as beguiling and fascinating in themselves. While they are a respectable post-modern device, I found them disconcerting. For they constantly reminded me of the factual world of the troupe, when I was actually following the ups and downs of the imagined saga of Mary Ann. The author in her note is frank about the distinctions she drew between the history and the fiction, but the appearance of photographs of the ‘real’ characters somehow serves to undermine the ‘reality’ I desired for the characters of invention. A reader is willing to be swept up in the world of fiction, and to be pulled back with a reminder that it is only fiction after all sets up an interference and a tension that do not serve the tale which is in this case building to a climax way beyond reality.

Water is a dominant motif throughout, Mary Ann frequently being characterised as mermaid-like, with Tennyson’s 1830 poem “The Mermaid” threading its way through the story in ways that are sometimes part of romance, and sometimes part of something very ominous. Mary Ann is a ragged Madonna figure. There is a sense of impending doom and disaster that Mary Ann can’t quite put her finger on, but it dogs her as she valiantly battles to survive and to guard the life of her unborn child. Hideous images of the so-called mermaids that used to be exhibited in museums and freak shows lurk in the muddy gloom that swirls through the narrative, seemingly waiting to swallow up Mary Ann and her baby.

The unborn child is central to the novel’s plot, and it has the dangerous quality of someone messianic. Tom Thumb puts round the story that the child is his, conceived by some kind of electrical magnetism when he and Mary Ann were struggling for survival in the river.

The nine month period of the midgets’ time in Australia is beautifully apt for the gestation of the baby, the progression of the pregnancy lending the novel much of its suspense. The reader is never able to forget that Mary Ann is pregnant. Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia are also focused on this fact. Childless, the couple are known to borrow babies to dandle in photographs, and there is a deep shuddering fear that they are planning to kidnap Mary Ann’s baby and abandon Mary Ann. With a touching simplicity and innocence, Mary Ann is unable to believe that such wickedness could really be. For she retains, through thick and thin, the blameless perseverance of a Jane Eyre type. But will she win through? Can she, in this bewildering world where good and evil blend like blood and milk in water, can she ever work out who is her Mr Rochester? The reader can see, for the clues are consistently planted, but Mary Ann is blind to her destiny, and herein lies her almost fatal error.

The final section of the novel takes off rather like an episode of Dr Who, and builds to the wild conclusion, with all the elements coming together to amaze the reader. At the very beginning Mary Ann said she had ‘no idea how dangerous the world could be’. How right she was.

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