Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

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.

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

I’ve found this a difficult book to write about because, although it is undoubtedly very well written and has a lot of the elements I would usually find interesting, for some reason I just didn’t like it very much and have struggled to explain why. It was particularly disappointing as I’ve enjoyed the other Rose Tremain books I’ve read – Restoration, Merivel and The Gustav Sonata – so I had high hopes for this one too.

Anyway, Islands of Mercy begins in 1865 in Bath, ‘a place where very many rich people assembled, to take the waters, or simply to take their leisure’. Jane Adeane is the twenty-four-year-old daughter of a renowned Bath surgeon and works with him as a nurse, gaining a reputation for herself as The Angel of the Baths. She has caught the eye of her father’s fellow doctor and business partner, Dr Valentine Ross, but his attentions are unwelcome to her and she decides to go to London for a while to stay with her Aunt Emmeline, an artist. Here she meets one of Emmeline’s friends, the beautiful Julietta Sims, and feels an instant attraction to her. Soon, Jane finds that she is falling in love with Julietta, and when she returns to Bath she must decide whether she wants the security that marriage to Dr Ross could give her or whether she would prefer to be free to pursue her relationship with Julietta.

Jane’s story alternates with that of Sir Ralph Savage, an eccentric Englishman who lives on the island of Borneo with his servant and lover, Leon, and calls himself ‘the Rajah of the South Sadong Territories’. Leon is an ambitious and resourceful young man who is always coming up with new money-making schemes, but he is also a jealous man and is not at all happy when Edmund Ross, a naturalist who has come to Borneo in search of new species, arrives on Sir Ralph’s estate.

Edmund is the younger brother of Valentine Ross and this provides a link between the two storylines – however, it is a very weak link and for most of the novel they seem like two completely different, unconnected stories. Borneo is certainly a fascinating and unusual setting, but I didn’t have any interest in Sir Ralph and Leon and felt that their chapters could probably have been left out entirely as they added very little to the overall plot of the novel. This made the whole experience of reading this book feel disjointed and every time the narrative switched to Borneo I couldn’t wait for it to return to Bath again.

Although I found Jane’s chapters much more compelling, I was disappointed by the character arc Valentine Ross goes through; I did have some sympathy for him at first after Jane’s initial rejection of him, but he quickly becomes so unpleasant and controlling that he feels like a stereotypical villain rather than a believably flawed character. I didn’t doubt Jane’s love for Julietta, so I don’t really think it was necessary to make Valentine so needlessly cruel and selfish – in fact, I think it would have been more interesting if Jane had faced a choice between the woman she loved and a man whom she at least liked.

There is a third thread to the novel that I haven’t mentioned yet and this follows the story of Clorinda Morrissey, a woman from Dublin who opens a tea shop in Bath, where she gets to know Jane and her father. Clorinda was the one character in the book I really liked and would have been happy to visit for a cup of tea and a cake! I wished we had spent more time with her rather than some of the other less engaging characters.

I will continue to read Rose Tremain’s books as it’s only this one so far that I haven’t enjoyed. Luckily there are plenty of her earlier novels left for me to explore.

Book 2/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

This beautifully written novel, translated from the original Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, is the first in a planned trilogy based around the legend of the Sister Bells. The bells commemorate conjoined twin sisters Gunhild and Halfrid Hekne, who lived in the remote village of Butangen and died within hours of each other. Their family donated the bells to the local church in memory of the twins and they are still hanging there, in the bell tower, in 1880 when the novel begins…

As the rest of the world heads towards the twentieth century, Butangen appears to be frozen in time, a place where life is still ruled by superstition and folklore, where people still believe in evil spirits and ill omens. When Kai Schweigaard, an ambitious young pastor, arrives in the village he despairs of ever bringing change to a population so resistant to progress and modern ways of thinking.

If only people had light, he thought. If there was a strong lamp in every home, which could illuminate faces and edifying books, I could banish these mad notions in a few years. But at sunset the village grew dark, and with it folk’s minds, and these unknown powers ruled until sunrise.

One of the ways in which Kai hopes to improve life in the village is by replacing the ancient 12th century stave church where a parishioner actually froze to death during Mass with a larger, warmer, more comfortable building. The old church, complete with its pagan carvings and twin bells, is to be dismantled and reconstructed in Dresden, and a young German architect – Gerhard Schönauer – has arrived to make drawings of the church before it is taken down. However, Kai and Gerhard face opposition not only from the people of Butangen, who are suspicious and resentful of anything new, but also from the Sister Bells themselves. The bells are said to have supernatural powers and to ring on their own when danger is approaching – and it seems that the bells don’t want to be removed.

As well as the two men, a large part of the story is also written from the perspective of twenty-year-old Astrid Hekne, who works as a maid in Kai Schweigaard’s household at the parsonage. Despite the differences in their social standing, Kai is considering making Astrid his wife, but complications arise when Astrid finds herself drawn to Gerhard Schönauer. Meanwhile, as a descendant of the twins Halfrid and Gunhild, Astrid feels a responsibility for the bells and decides she must do whatever it takes to prevent Gerhard from transporting them to Dresden with the rest of the church.

The Bell in the Lake is a wonderfully atmospheric novel thanks to Lars Mytting’s beautiful descriptions of the landscape around Butangen, particularly in winter with its frozen lakes and snow-covered hills and valleys, while the supernatural elements and the role of the Sister Bells legend give the story an eerie and mysterious feel. The sense of time is as strong as the sense of place and the characters feel like real 19th century people, rather than modern day people dropped into a random historical setting. However, I think the decision to have Astrid and the other villagers speak in a dialect which seems to be mainly Scottish is a bit strange. I suppose the translator had to find a way to differentiate between the speech of the local people and the outsiders (who speak in standard English), and using Scottish words makes sense because of the close ties with Norway, but I found it slightly distracting and kept forgetting that Astrid was actually Norwegian!

One of my favourite themes in fiction is the conflict between old ways of life and new, and in this novel we see how the inhabitants of Butangen are reluctant to move away from the traditions they have always followed and try to resist any kind of social, scientific or religious progress. Although Astrid has been brought up with the same beliefs, she has a more adventurous spirit than most of her neighbours and longs to see more of the world, which is what draws her to Gerhard. The demolition of the old church, which Gerhard has come to oversee, and the building of the new one is symbolic of all of this. If you’ve never seen a Norwegian stave church, by the way, I recommend googling them – they look amazing and it’s sad to think that there are so few of them left.

Having enjoyed The Bell in the Lake so much, I am looking forward to the other two books in the trilogy and hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next one!

Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

Having enjoyed one of Joseph O’Connor’s earlier novels, Ghost Light, about the relationship between the playwright John Millington Synge and the actress Molly Allgood, I was looking forward to reading his newest book, Shadowplay, which was shortlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Like Ghost Light, this book explores the lives of several real historical figures from the literary and theatrical worlds – in this case, the Irish author Bram Stoker and the English stage actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

Bram Stoker, of course, is best known for his 1897 novel Dracula, which is written in an epistolary style and O’Connor uses a similar format in Shadowplay, telling the story through a series of imagined diary entries, letters and transcripts of recordings. Beginning with his life in Dublin and marriage to Florence Balcombe, the novel takes us through Stoker’s meeting with the great Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving and his move to London to become the manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre. Stoker’s involvement with Irving and the Lyceum leads to a friendship with Ellen Terry, the leading actress of her time, and the relationship between these three characters forms the heart of the novel.

While much of Stoker’s time is taken up with managing the theatre and trying to deal with Irving’s eccentricities, sudden rages and heavy drinking, he also continues to work on his own career as an author. Sadly he won’t achieve the fame he deserves until after his death, but in Shadowplay we see him drawing on his experiences and the people and places around him to put together the various parts of the novel that will become Dracula. I should point out, though, that this book is a work of fiction and Joseph O’Connor finds some very creative ways to weave Dracula allusions into the plot. They are not necessarily things that influenced the real Stoker, but I thought it was fascinating and cleverly done. Jonathan Harker appears, and Mina, although not quite in the way you might expect, a visit to an asylum inspires the creation of the insect-eating Renfield, and with Jack the Ripper haunting the streets of London at that time, it’s easy to see why themes of death and darkness wouldn’t be far from an aspiring author’s mind.

Despite all the interesting ideas explored in this novel, I can’t really say that I loved it. I thought the format and structure of the book made it feel slightly disjointed; a more conventional narrative would have worked better for me and would have made it easier for me to connect with the characters and become more fully asbsorbed in their stories. Still, this is an entertaining and very imaginative novel and I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about Bram Stoker, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry!

Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin

Thanks to everyone who commented on my post earlier this month asking for recommendations of novels about artists; I now have a whole list of titles and authors to investigate – and as promised, here are my thoughts on one of my recent reads, Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin. The Whistler the title refers to is, of course, the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and ‘Mrs Whistler’ is his model, muse and mistress, Maud Franklin. Although I was familiar with a few of his most famous paintings, such as Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (known as Whistler’s Mother), I knew nothing about his personal life or what sort of man he was, and I’m sorry to say that I hadn’t even heard of Maud.

The story of Maud’s relationship with Whistler is played out against a backdrop of some of the significant events that occurred in their lives between 1876 and 1880. The first part of the novel concentrates on the controversial Peacock Room, a decorative interior Whistler creates in the dining room of Frederick Richards Leyland’s London townhouse. Leyland is not at all happy when he sees what Whistler has done and a bitter feud follows. Later, the novel explores Whistler’s decision to sue the art critic John Ruskin for libel after he describes Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold as ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.

These two incidents form the basis of the plot and as I had no prior knowledge of any of this, I found that I was learning a lot about Whistler, his paintings and his life. But this is not so much a book about Whistler as a book about what it was like to know Whistler, to be near him and to share both his triumphs and his troubles. Maud Franklin must have known him as well as anyone – she was with him for around fifteen years and they had two children together (whom she had to see raised by foster parents), which makes her a logical choice of character to focus on. However, according to Plampin’s author’s note the real Maud had refused to talk to Whistler’s biographers who complained that ‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not’. This means Plampin has had to use his imagination to decide how Maud felt about Whistler and the other people in his life and how she may have thought, spoken and reacted.

Whistler, at least as seen through the fictional Maud’s eyes, does not come across as a very pleasant man. He’s self-absorbed, he treats Maud badly at times and often lacks awareness and judgement, which is particularly illustrated by his relationship with his friend Charles Augustus Howell, known as Owl. It is obvious to the reader that Owl cannot be trusted, but Whistler remains irritatingly loyal to him, not able to see what we and (eventually) Maud can see. I did have sympathy for Maud and wouldn’t have blamed her if she had left Whistler, but she stayed with him, I suppose, through a combination of love and a need for security. It’s a sad and often frustrating story, but told in a way that I found believable and convincing.

This is the first book I have read by Matthew Plampin, but I know he has written four others. If you’ve read any of them, maybe you can help me decide which one I should read next.

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

I usually love Sebastian Barry’s books, but his last one – Days Without End – was the first one I’ve read that I haven’t particularly enjoyed. Ironically, it also seems to be one of his most popular and successful books! When I saw that he had written a sequel, I wasn’t sure whether to read it, but as it promised to tell the story of Winona, the one character from Days Without End who did interest me, I thought I would try it – and I’m pleased to say that I was able to connect with this book in a way that I didn’t with the previous one.

Those of you who have read Days Without End will probably remember that Winona was the Lakota orphan rescued by Thomas McNulty and John Cole. In A Thousand Moons, set in the 1870s, we discover that Winona, now a young woman, is still living with Thomas and John on Lige Magan’s tobacco farm in Tennessee. Despite the love and support she receives from the men who have adopted her and the opportunities she has been given – including a job in a lawyer’s office – Winona is aware that she has still not been fully accepted by the wider community and that most people see her as ‘nothing but an Injun’ whose life is worth less than that of a white person.

Near the beginning of the novel we learn that Winona has been raped and the blame has fallen on Jas Jonski, a young Polish immigrant who swears he loves Winona and wants to marry her. Winona herself has no memory of the incident, something which distresses her as she has no idea whether Jonski is being wrongly accused or not. At around the same time, Tennyson Bouguereau, a former slave living on the farm, is also attacked and violently beaten – and again, it is not clear who the culprits are. The rest of the book, narrated by Winona herself, describes how she slowly uncovers the truth of her own assault and Tennyson’s.

I’m not sure why I liked this book so much more than Days Without End. Both books are beautifully written, as I have come to expect from Sebastian Barry, and obviously they feature some of the same characters and have a similar setting. I think the difference is that the first book, which was narrated by Thomas McNulty, was more of a ‘western’ with a focus on things like life in the army, shooting buffalo and fighting the Sioux. This book, in contrast, is more domestic, concerned with how the characters are getting on with their daily lives in the aftermath of the recent Civil War and how they are coping with the racial tensions left unresolved within their society. That, and the fact that I felt a stronger emotional connection with Winona than I did with Thomas, are the only reasons I can think of for my very different reactions to the two novels.

I also loved all the little insights Winona gives us into her early childhood with the Lakota tribe and what she remembers of their culture, traditions and stories, including her mother’s belief that ‘If you walked far enough, you could find the people still living who had lived in the long ago. A thousand moons all at once.’

Although, unlike many of Sebastian Barry’s books, this one is not set in Ireland, he is an Irish author and I am counting A Thousand Moons towards Cathy at 746 Books’ Reading Ireland Month. I still have three of Barry’s earlier novels to read: A Long Long Way, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and Annie Dunne. If you’ve read any of them, which one do you think I should read next?

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor

In Becoming Belle, Nuala O’Connor (a pseudonym of the Irish author Nuala Ní Chonchúir) brings to life a young woman whose picture hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London but whose name is probably unfamiliar to most of us today. She is Belle Bilton, a star of the Victorian music hall who later became the Countess of Clancarty. O’Connor’s novel tells, in fictional form, the story of Belle’s rise to fame, her marriage and the scandalous court case that follows.

Born Isabel Maud Penrice Bilton, the eldest daughter of an artillery sergeant, Belle grows up in an army garrison watching her mother, an entertainer, perform for the troops. It is while taking her mother’s place on stage one night that Belle decides she also wants a career in entertainment, so at the age of nineteen she leaves the military life behind and heads for London to make her dream come true. Belle’s singing and dancing quickly causes a sensation and when she is joined by one of her younger sisters, Flo, the two form a double act that becomes the star attraction of the London theatres.

Following a performance one day in 1889, Belle meets and falls in love with William, the young Viscount Dunlo, son and heir to the Earl of Clancarty. It’s not long before she and William are standing in the Registrar’s Office in Hampstead taking their marriage vows and looking forward to spending the rest of their lives together. At twenty years old, however, William is still firmly under the thumb of his father, the Earl, who is furious when he hears of the secret wedding and makes it clear that he will do whatever it takes to separate his son from Belle.

Some books grab you from the first page, while others take much longer to settle into – and for me, Becoming Belle was one of the latter rather than the former. The account of Belle’s early life and first days on the stage didn’t interest me much and I came close to abandoning the book after a few chapters. Belle herself seemed as though she would be difficult to like – an ambitious social climber like Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, but with little depth or substance to her character – and the focus on her sexual encounters also put me off. I’m glad I continued, though, because I thought the second half of the book, after Belle meets William, was much more compelling than the first.

I don’t want to say too much about how the story of Belle’s marriage plays out, but it involves a court case which draws in most of the characters we have met in the novel and which was widely reported in the media of the time. I managed to resist looking up the facts about the real Belle Bilton, so I didn’t know what the outcome of the court case would be, but by that stage of the book I was fully invested in Belle’s story and hoped there would be a happy ending for her. I still didn’t like her very much, but I had more sympathy for her than I’d had earlier in the novel because she’d had so much to contend with during her short time in London. However, I couldn’t really see her as a feminist heroine ‘ahead of her time’ as she is described in the book’s blurb; although I admired her for trying to get what she wanted out of life, for working hard at her chosen career and securing financial independence, she seemed too willing to give it all up to become Countess of Clancarty and too ready to forgive William for the appalling way he treats her at times.

I have no idea what the real William, Viscount Dunlo was supposed to be like, but based on the way he is portrayed in this book, I found him immature and pathetic, declaring his love for Belle while at the same time allowing his father to tear them apart. Luckily, there were plenty of other, stronger characters in the novel whom I found more appealing to read about: for example, Belle’s close friend Isidor Wertheimer, the antiques dealer, and her sister, Flo, both of whom support her through her various ordeals.

Despite struggling with the first half of this book, I ended up really enjoying Becoming Belle – although I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of her time at Garbally Court, the Clancarty estate in Ireland. Anyway, I went from thinking Nuala O’Connor was not an author for me to wanting to read more of her books. Miss Emily, her novel about the poet Emily Dickinson sounds like an interesting one.

Although I read this book in February, I have waited until now to post my review because this month Cathy at 746 Books is hosting her annual Reading Ireland event. I hope to have time to write about another book by an Irish author before the end of March.