The world we live in is not kind to outsiders.
For daring to look, act or be a thousand kinds of different, dissendents, deliberately, or usually not, to the sacred code of unspoken uniformity that governs the machinations of society, they are pilloried, mocked, discardeds wept aside and ignored.
In doing so, people, refered to in Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, H. P. Woods compulsively readable excursion into life in New York Coney Island in the early 1900s, as “Dozens” as in “Dime a …” think they are doing humanity, getting rid of anyone who might threaten, pollute or malign the established order of things.
But as you come to know the Unusuals who populate the many acts of Coney Island, giving fascinating oddity to the myriad acts that celebrate the divergences from orthodox humanity, you come to realise, and not for the first time if you’re even remotely aware that homo sapiens is not as closed or small a church as conservatives would have you believe, that we are all the richer for having people like Zeph, who lost his legs in a tractor accident, or Rosalind who refuses to subscribe to the limitations of the gender binary or Enzo, whose face is scarred markedly on one side, transgressing very limited notions of beauty.
Sure they’re different but ah what a marvellous difference it is, as the orthodoxy-bucking daughter of Turkish immigrants Nazan and English society girl adrift Kitty, both folded into the magical world of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet at an unloved and rarely visited end of Coney island come to discover.
Alas they are alone in their appreciation of the richness, variety and heartfelt community of the Unusuals, and as the Plague strikes New York, afflicting Dozens and Unusuals alike, the majority, particularly those in charge, turn their ire on the outsiders, the Others, blaming them for the health disaster unfolding in their midst.
“From Rosalind’s window, Kitty sees Unusuals drifting down the street in small groups. Holding hands, leaning on one another, heads low. It’s oddly comforting. With her entire family dead or presumed so, being a castaway in the ‘people’s playground’ is a bit like being a widow at a wedding. Now, she thinks, we can all be sad together. She dresses quickly and goes downstairs to join her fellow mourners … But when she walks in, she realises there is no we—there is she, and there is everybody else.” (P. 142)
It’s not, sadly enough, and if you have ever been marked as an outlier of any kind, you will be all too aware of how excoriating and alone it can feel, how every waking moment becomes a struggle, sometimes a violent one, to justify your place in the world.
You shouldn’t have to, of course, no one should and Woods does a brilliantly insightful job of how soul-destroying this can be, even within a strong community of likeminded souls around you, and how hard it can be for anyone outside that world to fully understand what it is like.
The masterstroke of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, which is liberally peppered with sublimely poetic pieces of writing that will have you appreciating often how good writing can be, is that it doesn’t turn the events of the novel, where the Unusuals are literally fighting for their lives and their way of life on many fronts, into some sort of narrow, preachy polemic.
Instead Woods let’s the events of the story and the marvellously memorable characters who populate it, speak for themselves, helping us to see how these characters are as flawed and wonderful as the rest of us but in their own gloriously different way.
It’s clever, artful and mesmerisingly evocative writing that doesn’t twist itself into knots to make a point; rather it’s lets the points pour forth organically, rooted in a rich and appealing humanity that society at large would wholly benefit from embracing, especially now.
The only regrettable part of the book is that is has to end.
It’s one of those rare novels that will have you missing it could go on forever, with Woods effortlessly bringing her characters to life over and over in such compelling ways that you can’t help but wish they could stay with you forever.
That opinion isn’t shared by the likes Senator Reynolds, who owns the Dreamland consortium, which owns much of Coney Island nor the thuggishly bureaucratic small minds behind the Orwellianly-named Committee for Public Safety, but it’s well nigh impossible to read any of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet without falling head over heels for P-Ray, Whitey, Zeph, Rosalind, Enzo and the Dozens who come into their orbit such as Spencer, Nazan and Kitty and find a wholly unexpected, and much-needed, home there.
The joy of these characters, whose trajectory looks dire at times with no guarantee, given the formidable forces arrayed against them, that they will triumph (although the narrative tends to suggest that they will and naturally you hope they do), is that they feel so real and wonderfully wrought.
There is a palpable realness to them and the hidden world of Coney Island they inhabit, that anchors some of the plot’s more fancifully-convenient moments (which, trust me, you won’t begrudge for a moment).
“‘No. No, no, no. Stop that. What happened to you and your mother was a crime. What happened to P-Ray and Enzo was a crime. All over the city, it’s not right. And think about this. Most of the people being treated this way, they have no voice. They’re dead by now, or they’re poor, or they look like Enzo, and no Dozen would ever believe them. But you. You have your fine education, you have your accent, you have this pretty face—or it would be,’ he says kindly, ‘if you stop snuffling. You can be their champion, Kitty. You can stand up and say, This is what’s happening, and I know because it happened to me.'” (P. 310)
Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is that rare literary beast that is able to be both feelgood and grittily substantial.
There are happy endings sure but there is also considerable pain, loss, rejection and turmoil, and Woods willingness to fill her book with the grim realities of life on Coney Island, behind the magic and fantasy of its attractions, grants the book a powerful sense of life for the oppressed, marginalised and dispossessed.
It speaks to the power and solace to be found in shared community, of chosen families, of solidarity in the face of repeated onslaughts and it is does with a richness, compassion and realness that will have you captivated.
Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is as much as novel of the mind as the heart, a gripping, scintillating tale with much at stake that manages to celebrate humanity and memorable characters in amongst fast-moving action, a narrative feast written with insight and truthfulness and a deeply-held appreciation for the richness and diversity of those whom society treats too often, in a move that imperils its own good and that of the cast aside alike, as an unnecessary, and often threatening, afterthought.