The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno book review

There is a strong argument that first-time authors should maintain a healthy silence about their publishing pedigree

Book review, Time In
Ellen Bryson

Henry Holt and Co

There is a strong argument that first-time authors should maintain a healthy silence about their publishing pedigree, in much the same way that taxi drivers never announce that they have been doing the job ‘oh, for a good three hours now, sir’. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, it’s just that such honesty instils a degree of concern – such as frantically looking for familiar street signs – that can detract from the main event: arriving bang on time at your destination.

Which brings us neatly to Ellen Bryson and her curious tale of Fortuno’s fictional world. Bryson is keen to point out that this is her first novel, which makes the first two chapters ‘difficult’ – there are plenty of short, stabbing sentences and a determined obsession with explaining what each scene smells like. Yet the novel’s plot proves alluring, set in the very real world of 19th-century America and the legendary PT Barnum’s museum of human curiosities (and animals, although Bryson glosses over Barnum’s whale, which apparently boiled alive during the fire that ruined him). Fortuno is a thin man. A very thin man, who believes his rake-like figure is a design of nature, and not the product of the dozen green beans he eats each day. He believes he has a gift, in the same way two-headed calves have a gift, that places him on a higher pedestal than that of the common man.

It is from this lofty vantage point, and entirely through Fortuno’s eyes, that we follow a woeful tale of unrequited love. It’s a cautionary story of ambition, deceit and arrogance, with a pleasant undercurrent of the power of good and the inevitable fall of false gods. The unusual subject matter (when did you last read a book about a thin man loved by a super-fat lady, who in turn loves a lady with a ginger beard, who is herself loved by a museum owner?) makes this a difficult tome to become involved with, but persevere and you’ll be rewarded with a remarkable insight into human nature.

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