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Sunday, July 24, 2022



(The captive leopard on the cover represents the Leopard Lady in the book ... she has the white patches on her face and arms - vitiligo - an autoimmune disease, not a genetic condition)

Can Zillah rescue this woman? And how much will her life change if she does? (Review by Dee Stead)

Zillah is happy. She is billed as a star act at the Theatre of Marvels, and a handsome viscount is in love with her. Then she encounters the captive Leopard Lady, a woman with large white patches on her face arms and hair, on display as a “wild freak from Darkest Africa”. Can Zillah rescue this woman? And how much will her life change if she does?

"My name is Zillah. Just Zillah. I was born free."

This is how she proudly introduces herself in Lianne Dillsworth’s book, Theatre of Marvels.

Zillah is the daughter of a slave from Barbados, who belongs to a wealthy family living in St. James' Square in London. Her mother had never told her who her father was, he could have been the head of the household, one of his sons, or even a guest. All that Zillah knew was that he was white, which accounted for the light colour of her skin and the texture of her hair.

At the age of 7, her mother took her to live with a friend, the kindly Mrs Bradley, who had a tiny house in the overcrowded, poverty-stricken area known as St. Giles. Zillah saw this as an abandonment, not realizing that her mother was trying to protect her from the fate that she herself had suffered.

"Mrs B" cared for the child, taught her to read and to learn to recite many speeches from the plays written by Mr Shakespeare. When Mrs B died, Zillah, at 18, had to fend for herself. With her heart set on becoming an actress she auditions for Marcus Crillick, the unscrupulous, lecherous owner of the Theatre of Marvels. Marcus bills her as a savage African warrior queen, dresses her in skimpy animal skins, makes her darken her fair skin and gives her a name - The Great Amazonia. Zillah rapidly becomes the leading act in his show, and thus her career and her new life begins. We meet her rival performer, Ellen, and the stage manager, Barky, who takes Zillah under his protective wing.

Two new men come into Zillah's life. One is an aristocratic English man, Viscount Vincent, and the other is a successful African businessman, Lucian. No more spoilers of the storyline from me from now on!!!!

 As I read, I realised that this book should be displayed in the Young Adult section of a bookstore. Issues of slavery, the enormous economic problems arising as a result of the emancipation of former slaves, particularly in their struggles to find employment and lodging places as they flocked into cities to establish their new free lives become very clear to the reader.

At this time, a new diversion was becoming established in cities. Freak Shows were the new entertainment for Victorian audiences ... many hapless and homeless vagrants were ensnared in this cruel, degrading, humiliating enterprise. Circumstances catapult Zillah into this horrifying world.

Her experiences change her expectations, aspirations, her view of herself ... and she begins to grow and develop into a stronger, braver girl than she has ever been. – Dee Stead

Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth is published by Penguin Random House. ISBN: 9781529151466