Book Review

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell lives set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell 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 her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But what happens when her fame eclipses Jasper’s own? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?

I adored Elizabeth Macneal’s debut, The Doll Factory, and have been keen to read Circus of Wonders since its publication last year.

The novel opens in a small village on the south coast.  Here we meet Nell – a young woman whose skin is speckled with birthmarks which set her apart from those around her.  She has no friends and seems to avoid interaction for fear of bullying or pity, strangers openly wonder if she carries a disease, and her own father sees her as a bad omen.  Only her brother, Charlie, can see past her birthmarks to the woman underneath.  She is a fantastic character and one that I felt immediately sympathetic towards.  It must be a horrible experience to be so isolated and alone, and while most of those around her don’t mock her openly they do not defend or support her either.  There’s isn’t even any respite at home given her father’s views, and one wonders how she keeps going in the face of such prejudice. 

When her father sells her to Jasper Jupiter to form part of his Circus of Wonders she is, understandably, furious.  And yet, as she begins to perform and to find some modicum of fame, wowing the crowds as The Queen of Moon and Stars, she begins to feel that she has found her place.  A place where her birthmarks do not cause fear, but evoke something closer to wonder.  As Nell adapts to life in Jasper’s circus, she finds it challenging, and yet it’s here that she finds an outlet – somewhere that she can be herself without feeling the need to cover herself or to hide away.  It is, in short, somewhere that she feels comfortable in her own skin.  And while Jasper makes it clear that he desires Nell, it’s to his quiet, subservient younger brother, Toby, that she turns her attention, having not truly expected to experience love in her life. 

Toby is also an interesting character, although one that I couldn’t fully get to grips with.  It’s clear that Jasper has some hold over him – something that goes back to their days in the Crimean War.  This is gradually revealed over the course of the novel as we learn more about these two brothers and their somewhat odd relationship, and I wondered what could be so bad as to hold Toby so completely in thrall to his brother.  While Toby is pitched as something of a gentle giant – quiet, lumbering, unassuming – it’s clear that he’s strong and capable of spontaneous if infrequent acts of violence, particularly if he feels that something is becoming between him and his brother.  I found this devotion a little odd given Jasper’s casual cruelty to his brother who seeks only to please, but felt sympathy for him as we learn that the two intended to have their own show together, something that Jasper is conscious of and yet conveniently overlooks. 

The novel is partly inspired by the Victorian love of a “freak show” which saw those who were physically different paraded in front of audiences as entertainment.  Here, Macneal has pulled together an intriguing novel set around an entirely fictional but wholly plausible circus as showman Jasper buys those who he believes will titillate his audiences in some way.  It’s purely commercial for Jasper, although he does treat his performers relatively well – and I expect that not all did – ensuring that they are fed, paid well, and generally not mistreated as long as they toe the line.  It makes Jasper an interesting, morally grey character – one who is happy to trade in human lives with little thought for their feelings on the matter but who does treat them well once they are a part of his show.  It seems to me that there is a good person hiding under the showman’s façade – one who is proud, jealous, and so desperate for fame that he will use people as he needs to and yet one who does care underneath it all, even if he tries to bury those feelings. 

The novel starts out well as we’re introduced to the characters and as Nell quite literally learns the ropes as part of Jasper’s show, quickly becoming his key act.  I did find that the pace slowed somewhat in the middle although it does build up to a dramatic finale. I wasn’t sure how it would end, but Macneal brings the story to a satisfying close and avoids a saccharine ending that wouldn’t have fit with the narrative. 


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