I enjoyed Elizabeth Macneal’s first novel, The Doll Factory, so was looking forward to reading her new one, Circus of Wonders.
Beginning in the year 1866, Circus of Wonders tells the story of Nell, a young woman who has always been made to feel like an outsider in her small village on the south coast of England. The unusual birthmarks which cover her skin set her apart from the rest of the community and although her brother does his best to protect her, Nell knows she will never fit in. When Jasper Jupiter’s travelling circus arrives in the village, Nell is horrified to learn that her father has sold her to Jasper, who is looking for a new ‘curiosity’ to draw in the crowds. Once she settles into her new life, however, she begins to think that joining Jasper’s show is the best thing that could have happened to her. Her performance as ‘the Queen of the Moon and Stars’ proves to be a huge success, but how will Jasper feel if she becomes a bigger star than he is himself?
Nell’s story alternates with chapters written from the perspectives of two other characters, Jasper and his brother Toby. There’s a strong bond between the brothers, but they are two very different men. Jasper is very much the leader, an ambitious and ruthless businessman who sees the exploitation of other people as his way to fame and fortune. Toby, who helps him to run the circus, is a gentle, compassionate man desperate to find a way out from his brother’s shadow, but still haunted by his experiences as a photographer in the recent Crimean War. As the novel progresses we learn more about all three main characters as each of them tries to find their place in the world.
Although this is not always a very comfortable book to read, I think Macneal handles a sensitive topic very well. Nell and the other ‘circus attractions’ are treated as commodities to be bought and sold by collectors and showmen, but they are all presented as fully developed characters who, despite their unusual appearances, are normal human beings like anyone else. I have read a few other novels that deal with the same subject, so I was pleased to come across references to Charles Stratton, who appears in The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin and Julia Pastrana from Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch. Unlike Stratton and Pastrana, who both really existed, Nell is a fictional character but her story is no less moving and believable. I was also interested in the flashbacks to the Crimean War, where we gradually find out what really happened to Jasper and Toby, shaping them into the men they are when we meet them at the beginning of the novel.
Of Elizabeth Macneal’s two books, I think I preferred The Doll Factory, but I enjoyed both and will be looking out for whatever she writes next.
Thanks to Picador for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
Book 25/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.