BookBrowse Reviews Theatre Of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth

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Theatre Of Marvels

A Novel

by Lianne Dillsworth

Theatre Of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth X
Theatre Of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 320 pages

    Apr 2023, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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About this Book



Driven by its defiant heroine, Theatre of Marvels is a compelling look at race, identity and morality in Victorian-era London.

Though she was born and raised in the East End of London, mixed-race actress Zillah takes to the stage at Crillick's Variety Theatre night after night to play the part of a supposedly "savage" warrior from the jungles of Africa. Holding audiences rapt with her show of tribal dancing and ritual sacrifice, she earns a living by perpetuating every stereotype held against Black people in Victorian Britain. When Crillick's latest act, a fellow Black woman who really has been trafficked from Africa, goes missing, Zillah's search for answers will force her to confront the realities of systemic racism, human exploitation and the unwitting role she may have played in facilitating both.

Author Lianne Dillsworth shows the specific internal struggles that mixed-race people may have gone through in England at the time to reconcile their sense of identity and belonging. Zillah's skin is too dark for her to "pass" as white, and yet she must darken it in order to convince audiences that she is in fact a native of Africa. As a Londoner who was born free, she feels no connection to the culture of some of the city's Black population, many of whom are former slaves. To be proud of her heritage, she must first address her own internalized shame and prejudice surrounding slavery and Black history.

This idea of existing between identities is also used to explore class division. Zillah is from the slums of London. Having worked hard to better her prospects, she now finds herself being courted by a wealthy white viscount. But no matter the affection that may blossom between the two in private, social convention forces them to hide their relationship, with Zillah destined to never truly fit in among the country's aristocracy.

The novel is effectively evocative of the Victorian era and rich in period detail. Despite this, it always remains pacey, keeping readers on their toes with a good dose of intrigue and plenty of twists. A few threads feel somewhat rushed towards the end, as the narrative skirts on the edge of melodrama, but on the whole, Dillsworth balances the various characters and plot points well by always keeping her spirited heroine at the story's heart.

Indeed, it is through Zillah's personal journey of discovery that the author poses important questions about accountability. While few readers may hesitate to find fault in those who would parade people seen as "other" onstage as a form of entertainment, Theatre of Marvels asks us to also consider those who ignore this exploitation, as well as those — like Zillah — who are forced to reconcile morality and personal discomfort with the need to survive in a world that deliberately restricts their autonomy. Zillah feels driven to conform, and is only able to start pushing back once she sees firsthand the ripple effect of quietly accepting her own mistreatment.

Thrilling and heartfelt in equal measure, this is a thematically resonant look at embracing history in order to take control of one's future.

Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2022, and has been updated for the April 2023 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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