A Review of “Toad’s Museum of Freaks and Wonders” by Goldie Goldbloom
This winner of the 2008 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for the Novel is not a page-turning thriller, murder mystery or vampire diary. It is a creative narrative set in 1944 Australia, among a people fearing invasion from Japan as well as insurgent activity from its own herd of Italian prisoners of war brought over to the continent to man the Australian family farms.
On display in this house of curiosities is Gin, a tragic and loveable albino woman who has survived an “I-married-him-because-no-one else-would-have-me” union with a harsh, frightened, un-draftable man; she lives and breathes in the midst of the death of an infant daughter, the emotional chasm with a surviving elder child, and of being the play thing of one of the P.O.W. farm hands.
Gin moves cautiously from self-loathing to self-loving, even as she interacts with a frightened and bigoted community in town. Her fingers press against piano keys and bring past Masters to life as her hands scrub and bake and flatten and “feel for a fever…make a coffin…dress a dead child…lower a coffin into the ground… put one foot in front of the other and keep on doing it every day.”
She is a survivor of people viewing her in a freakish way and a survivor of her own similar self-perception. Gin swoons as she is attended to by Antonio who sees the beauty in her even as he plays with her. Gin screams for affection and must compete with his love for his own wife in Santa Anna, Italy and their children. The book’s end takes on a surreal tone as the narrative comes upon the end of the war and Gin searches for inner peace and acceptance amidst Antonio’s own personal tragedies.
I find it disconcerting when a book concludes in a different way than I anticipated…disconcerting but very satisfying. Goldbloom takes the reader into a different time and place, to the heart of the human soul where the cry for love is deepest. She reaches into the pit, as into the grave of a dead loved one, and raises up the beautiful.