Disease in the Sideshow: ‘Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet’

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cover78592-mediumBritish teenager Kitty Hayward has lost everyone that matters to her and finds herself stranded on Coney Island. Brought into a conman’s game, Kitty finds herself within the walls of Marguder’s Cabinet of Curiosities.  There, Kitty meets a man with no legs, a half-man/half-woman named Rosalind, an Italian with a facial deformity named Enzo, and a whole wealth of human beings that have only felt at home as sideshow performers on Coney Island. While they work to help Kitty find her mother, an illness of plague proportions hits New York City. It isn’t long before the disease is hitting sideshow performers and the group begins to wonder if the disappearance of Kitty’s family has something to do with the mystery pestilence.

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet: A Novel by H.P. Wood is a tough book. Not only is one dealing with the cruelty of humanity towards humanity, but they are dealing with a virulent plague. Wood makes sure to included detailed descriptions of the black pustules and gruesome deaths of those involved. In one portion of the book, a beautiful dancing girl begins to succumb to the disease, cursing the name of the “Tall Man” she was out with the night before. His death is even more gruesome, and twice as heart-breaking.  Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet also focuses a great deal on what it means to be an outsider. Dozens, or folks who are normal and therefore a “dime a dozen” are more than happy to use those with deformities for a laugh, but when it becomes clear that the disease is spreading it isn’t long before the Unusuals are blamed instead.

While I deeply enjoyed the descriptions of the Cabinet of Curiosities itself, I was turned off on the descriptions of the disease. There are also a few plot points that feel unresolved at the end of the book, mostly due to the large number of characters included. Most of the characters receive a grisly ending, and often in a way that feels rushed. I would have loved to see the number of characters toned down and their stories fleshed out to make them more believable characters. It’s one thing to kill a character; it’s another to make us deeply feel for that character and then kill them.

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet: A Novelis available June 1, 2016 from Sourcebooks.

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