Book Review: Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

About the Book:

It is 1865 and in a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart from her community because of the birthmarks that pepper her skin, Nell keeps her head down and her sights small: her world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

Then, Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives on the outskirts of the village. Nell keeps her distance, but the night after the circus has apparently left, she is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as she comes to know the other performers and Jasper’s quieter, gentler brother Toby, Nell begins to wonder if becoming part of the Circus of Wonders is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

Toby has always stuck to his brother’s side: the shadow to his brother’s luminous light. When Jasper served in the Crimean War, Toby followed with his camera, and they share a secret – hidden amongst the carnage of those battlefields – which binds them together.

But Toby is captivated by Nell. She has become Nellie Moon, the star of Jasper’s show. In London she is written up in the papers as the eighth wonder of the world, figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air.

But who gets to tell Nell’s story? And as she falls in love with Toby, can they plot their escape? As the world Jasper has created threatens to crash to the ground around him, Toby must decide where – finally – his loyalty lies.

This is a novel with a vivid, brilliant cast of characters and themes of creativity and ownership, beauty and power, success and crashing failure, and the Victorian obsession with spectacle.

Published by Picador
Released 11th May 2021

My Thoughts:

Those who have been with me for a while now will know that I love novels about the circus. You’ll also know that the Victorian era is one of my favourites to read about in historical fiction. So, imagine my delight upon discovering that one of my favourite authors has released a novel about the circuses of the Victorian era. I know! It’s like she’d written it just for me. Once again, Elizabeth Macneal offers us a Victorian London that throbs with atmosphere: the grime, the poverty, the depravity, the desperation; all of it pasted over with a transient glamour.

‘By the 1860s, the Victorian freak show, which traded physical difference as a form of entertainment, was booming. ‘Deformito-mania’, as Punch dubbed it, swept the globe with an unabated fury. Queen Victoria, dubbed the ‘freak fancier’, was the industry’s biggest fan and helped to popularize it, entertaining countless ‘human wonders’ and showmen in Buckingham Palace. For the performers themselves, the industry might have offered some opportunity and freedom, but it could also take it away with devastating effect.

Circus of Wonders is, among many things, a book about storytelling. There are no simple answers, no easy ways of reading a deeply complex and problematic piece of history. I wanted merely to highlight how this industry could both exploit and empower.’

– Author note.

The story is narrated alternately between Nell, aka Nellie Moon, the rising star of Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders, Jasper himself, and his brother Toby. There are other cast members who we get to know vividly through these perspectives: Stella, the bearded woman; Pearl, the albino child; Brunette, the giantess; Dash, Jasper’s best friend and Stella’s love, who died in the Crimean War and whose death binds Toby to Jasper with a sinking obligation. Even minor players come across as fully fleshed out and authentic. Characterisation, along with setting, combines to give us an authentic reading experience, the closest we can get to stepping back through time.

‘In this age of wonder, epiphanies are born in the ecstasies of dreams and fevers. Mary Shelley dreamed up Frankenstein. Alfred Russel Wallace conceived the theory of natural selection while raving with fever. Keats and Coleridge birthed their greatest works in the throes of opium. And now, he, Jasper Jupiter, has settled on the invention which will immortalize him. He will tell this story for years to come, the tinderbox moment when the idea struck him. He has the answer; he knows he has it. This is what will set him apart. This is what will make him. He dips his quill into a brimming inkpot and his vision sharpens.’

Circus of Wonders was to me not just the story of the performers. It was also the story of the greed and craving for fame that underpinned the showmen. When Jasper revealed his show with Nellie Moon as the star, his success was instant, he was the envy of other showmen and the money just started rolling in. But his ego got in the way, and an interesting notion was revealed: was Jasper driven by money or fame? He had money, more than enough coming in to finance his venture, yet once the star of his show became more famous than he, it was as though he became the agent of his own destruction, completely blinded to reality. That slipping and unravelling of his mind was conveyed with such captivating brilliance; I feared for the performers, at the mercy of such an imbalanced mind, but I feared for Jasper as well, who was totally destroying himself swiftly and permanently.

‘He has lost control of his story, has watched as it has spun and built and gathered without him in it, no longer about him but her. Everywhere he turns, she is there. Her name, in the courtier’s mouth. Her bite and kick, her refusal to submit to him. And then, that light glimmering in Toby’s wagon. He stumbled towards it, and there they were.’

Toby was my favourite character, underestimated as Jasper’s shadow, seemingly only there to do his bidding. But Toby was a complex man, bound to his brother like a twin, this bond was not entirely of Toby’s making; Jasper himself was unable to live without his brother in his shadow, he couldn’t envisage running the circus without him, he even dragged Toby to the battlefields of the Crimean War just so that he could have him there. The bond between these brothers was forged upon many emotions, some of it manipulated by Jasper, some of it orchestrated by Toby’s adulation, but most of it was born out of genuine feeling. Their relationship demonstrated the complexity of siblings, the love balanced with obligation, the genuine feeling of attachment you can have that never eases. Nell had this with her brother Charlie too, but her desire for the circus life led to her cutting free from that bond in a way that Toby and Jasper were unable to.

‘Circus has always made him believe that anything is possible. But he knows, too, that it is an illusion, that life does not share its boldness, its neat stories.’

Nell was such a great character. I felt as though the author articulated what it must be like to astound audiences whilst still feeling their revulsion. People like Nell were not regarded as human beings. They were spectacles to gawk at, to touch, to collect. As performers, they gained a small measure of power, offset though by the whims of the crowds and forever at the mercy of their showmen. The love story between Nell and Toby was so beautiful, and while on the one hand, I longed for Toby’s dream to come true, on the other, I could intimately understand why Nell felt she needed the circus. The way this all played out was empowering, as women in particular were more vulnerable to ownership by their showmen, just as they have always been at the mercy of the whims of men all through history. The feminist undercurrent throughout this novel was subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

I adored The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal’s debut and previous release. I loved Circus of Wonders equally as much. The two novels are linked in style yet vastly different, the mark of a great author. Circus of Wonders was sublime, unforgettable historical fiction that will delight and horrify in equal measure – the imbalance of power coupled with the heady desire of fame; humanity at its most gratuitous unspooling against a fickle Victorian London backdrop. Be still, my beating heart. Seriously, it doesn’t get better than this.


9 thoughts on “Book Review: Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

  1. I remember going to a circus when I was a little girl. My father took us, my mother thought circuses were cruel; she disapproved of zoos too because she loved wild animals and thought they should not be used for human entertainment.. But I was captivated and I loved the glamour.
    So it was a shock for me when I read Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus and realised just how unglamorous it really was. It wasn’t just the animals that were exploited…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haxby’s Circus. What a classic. I really do love that novel. It shone a very bright light on the circus, didn’t it? I’ve always been drawn to the circus, from a very young age. I’ve been to quite a few, small and large. I never liked seeing the animals used there but on the other hand, for a long time, I wanted to run away to the circus and be a trapeze artist. Probably not an unusual dream for a child from a volatile home. I took my own children to a circus once but viewing it as an adult was a very different experience and not one I enjoyed. I had read too much about them by then.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love your enthusiasm for this one, the word ‘sublime’ is high praise indeed 🙂 I enjoyed The Doll Factory but I’m not ‘big’ on circus books. Having said that, I have the biggest circus book on my TBR yet to be read, The Night Circus, so fingers crossed I enjoy that one.

    Liked by 1 person

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