Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Stunning First Novel by Ellen Bryson: "The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno"

Ellen Bryson's first novel, "The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno," is a "freaky" tour de force. When I read an early review that likened the book to "Like Water for Elephants," I knew that I had to read the book. I am a sucker for any well-written book about the circus or those who perform in circuses. That fact that I lived briefly in Bridgeport, CT that boasts it own P.T. Barnum Museum gave me even more incentive to read this fictionalized work about his famous New York City museum. Ironically, I am writing this review just a few days after the Bridgeport museum suffered serious damage in the recent Bridgeport tornado, echoing the destruction by fire of the New York City museum in July of 1865.

On the surface, this is a novel about the inner lives of the cast of freaks and oddities that Barnum put on display at his popular museum - and later in the circus that he ran. Narrated by Bartholomew Fortune, "the world's thinnest man," the novel is a deep exploration of the source of one's identity and the quest for freedom from those forces that would seek to interfere with truly becoming who one is meant to be. The theme of freedom emerges in many of the scenes in the book, and ties together many of the characters - and the actions and dialogue that bind them together. Here is an excellent example of how the author treats the topic of freedom - its gifts and its pitfalls. In this example, caged birds represent the novel's characters in their individual pursuits of freedom - Fortuno; Iell,the enigmatic bearded lady who carries a secret known only to a few; Matina, the fat lady, the Strong Man, The Rubber Man, et al.

"And finally, with everyone's attention riveted upward, the doors to all the little birdcages popped open - they had been rigged with strings pulled by lads running along beneath them - and a hundred frenzied songbirds dashed out into the height of the cavernous theater, a cockatoo and a conspicuous blue parrot among them as the boys released all my birds as well.

The birds, set free, swooped about in fifty-foot drops, careening over our heads, and then dashed up again, as if they were trying to make sense of a world without limits. I leaped to my feet with the rest of the audience, bedazzled by the spectacle, hope and fear rising in me in equal measure. Many of the birds settled on balconies or seatbacks for a moment or two before taking off into the air again, and my heart soared with them. But an unlucky few seemed to lose their way, and, rather than fly with their brethren they swooped too high or too low and ended up smashing themselves against the walls, discovering the hard way exactly what freedom meant." (Page 306)

This novel is well worth reading to learn how this gifted first-time novelist, Ellen Bryson, depicts how each of the human curiosities - her cast of characters - soars too high or swoops too low in search of their own brand of freedom.



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