We’re transported to the Gilded Age in this debut novel about circus curiosities.

THE TRANSFORMATION OF BARTHOLOMEW FORTUNO. Ellen Bryson. Holt. 338 pages. $25.

Today, no ticket is necessary to gawk at the freakiest aspects of modern humanity; a quick Internet search delivers them in seconds. But in 1865, morbid curiosity was assuaged at such places as P.T. Barnum’s pre-circus American Museum in New York City. There the larger-than-life showman paraded odd objects and such human curiosities as Bartholomew Fortuno, the World’s Thinnest Man and fictional narrator of Ellen Bryson’s promising debut novel.

After a slow beginning tripped up by cumbersome, overwritten prose, The Transformation finds firm legs in Fortuno’s entrancing voice and the atmospheric reimagining of Barnum’s museum. The story opens on the eve of President Lincoln’s funeral, 10 years after Barnum rescued Fortuno from the circus. Artfully inserted historical details — from sewer smells to the reading of the latest Dickens’ installment in Harper’s — make the period tangible.

When Fortuno spies Barnum with a veiled woman, he is threatened and intrigued by what can only be a new act. Then the famously smiling Barnum asks Fortuno to spy on the newcomer, Iell, the Bearded Lady. The ensuing entanglement upends his routine, the curiosities’ hierarchy and eventually his identity.

On the surface, Fortuno is the consummate gentleman, forever respectful of his best friend and opposite Matina, the Fat Lady. He’s a loyal employee and a passionate performer who believes his act provides an important service to audiences. “[O]ur destiny insists we use our gifts to show others who they really are or show them what, in an ideal world, they could become,” he opines. “It may shock them at first, but, deep down, we open their eyes to greater possibilities.”

But, as Fortuno admits, some visitors stare in awe and others in disgust, so perhaps some readers won’t delight in sticking close to tall, thin Fortuno, whose deeper psychology can be as grating as his physique. Until Iell enters the scene, Fortuno is a naive shut in whose delusional arrogance helps him rationalize his refusal to leave the museum: “Normal people needed the context of my show to understand my place in the world, and I needed the distance from normal people. Idiots, every one.”

But when Barnum and Iell force Fortuno to connect with the outside world, his reality expands, and being swathed inside his point of view becomes less limiting. Amid this broader world still rich with magic, Bryson plucks readers’ curiosities to probe timeless questions: What happens when we suppress our appetites? What do we sacrifice to belong? What is lost when we hide?

Uncovering Iell’s secrets leads Fortuno to expose his own, and this subtle but profound transformation casts a spell over the narrative until the last pages. Novel and character are awakened by the magnetic Iell, who makes Fortuno feel “empty and full at the same time. Hungry and satiated.” By the end of the novel, readers should feel that way, too.

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