cover image Theatre of Marvels

Theatre of Marvels

Lianne Dillsworth. Harper, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-358-62791-3

Dillsworth’s engrossing debut probes the underbelly of Victorian London’s musical theatre scene. Narrator Zillah, headliner of Marcus Crillick’s variety show and the “Great Amazonia” of Drury Lane, is billed as the “dangerous savage from darkest Africa” and is costumed in skins, a feathered cloak, and beads. Her routines range from blood sacrifice, war dances, and a series of tableaux that supposedly reflect her background. The only problem is that she’s a fraud, born free and living in west London. It’s a secret she must conceal in order to keep crowds coming. Her closest friends are Ellen, a singer from Galway, and “lean and mysterious” Barky, the compassionate stage manager. Each has their own burdensome skeleton to hide. Their lives clash through Zillah’s forbidden romance with titled Viscount Vincent Woodward, who offers her a life of luxury with “carriages, clothes, and cuisine”; Lucien Winters, a wealthy African grocer with his own designs on Zillah; and an enticing Leopard Lady from Paris whose physical abuse leads to an immigration scheme that could topple the whole enterprise. Dillsworth’s graphic descriptions of pungent docks, warehouses, opium dens, and back alleys create an immersive atmosphere, and the author rounds things out with strong secondary characters, like the henchman Bill Black; and rich backstories, such as that of Zillah’s childhood love. It all adds up to a stunning historical drama. (Apr.)