If you have been in the mood for abnormal finds, please read the following, as this double-feature will be for you.
Start With: The Julius Romeros Extravaganza: Part 1, the Bearded Girl by Hayley Lawson-Smith. When I started reading this book, I was a bit apprehensive. It’s not that bearded girls in the circus are not an appealing prospect, but the genre of fantasy (which was what I assumed the book fell under) is not something I have much experience with. Though I am a lover of the Harry Potter books, that is about the extent of my fantasy knowledge. However, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. It instantly took me back to a child state of mind, by which I mean that the whimsical nature of life became more present and highlighted. From a less distinguished writer, the elements of the plot could have collapsed into a pool of silliness, but what seems to hold the fabric together is the fact that the narrative—despite the outlandish characters—takes itself seriously. I did, too.
I do not like to dwell on plot, so I will say that the book concerns a young girl named Abigail who is born with a beard, much to the horror of her parents. After many attempts to normalize her, Abigail joins the circus and finds a whole world of people who relate to her only in the fact that they are nothing like her, nor are they like anyone else. They are part of the Julius Romeros Extravaganza.
Perhaps one reason why I have not always been drawn to the fantasy genre is because I have had difficulty finding meanings beyond the surface of the plots. Some authors (in fantasy or other genres) are fine with letting the complicated plot dictate the narrative drive and focus of the book. Characters and character development are second to the more gimmicky features put on display. I was (once again) surprised to find that this was not the case for The Julius Romeros Extravaganza. Despite all being a “Freak” from the time of birth, the character of Abigail (the Bearded Girl) goes on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance in a world that defines personal worth as a reflection of how “normal” you are. But as Abigail is told, “Who in their right mind would want to be normal? How terribly, loathsomely boring! What a curse to be the same as those mundane, ordinary, normal people.” The book does not give the message that abnormal people are better, but simply that they what they are—abnormal. And why should that ever be a bad thing? Why should that ever be something to hide, rather than embrace and show the world? Together, the misfit characters travel through life with the knowledge that their gifts bring light to those they perform for. And so they troop and march on because, though they are a performing group, their first priority is to be a—rather unconventional—family. In there, it does not matter what labels the outside world assigns you.
“Home,” as they say, “is where you hang your costume.”
Pair This With: The 2011 film This Must Be the Place. Though Sean Penn playing a retired rock musician with a breakable voice and a profound sense of social awkwardness may look like something from a circus, this has nothing to do with circuses or extravaganzas or even performances. Penn is Cheyenne (part of Cheyenne and the Folks), who now spends his days in his luxury home with his wife Jane (Frances McDormand) and at the mall with his teenage friend Mary (Eve Hewson), who he tries to find dates for. After this dull world becomes even duller with the death of his father, Cheyenne has the revelation that he’s “slightly depressed” (which is one of the finest examples of an understatement I’ve ever seen) and goes on a mission to find the Nazi war criminal that once persecuted his father in World War II. The movie, like the character of Cheyenne, does not really fit into any particular genre. It is a comedy—despite almost all “humor” being situational and clearly not intended just for laughs, a drama—despite the lack of weepy and passionate scenes, a “quest fulfillment” action film—despite there being almost no physical action. It is slower, but it is worth it. Penn is mesmerizing as his character. Within a minute, I forgot that he was acting at all. And just like The Julius Romeros Extravaganza, the film explores being a misfit in a conformist world and how looks can only go so far to revealing the true extent of ourselves.