My review today is for the beautiful Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal. Many thanks to Elizabeth, and to Picador, for my copy of the book, which I received via NetGalley.
1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.
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 who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? 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?
Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.
Weirdly, although I am not a fan of the circus, I can’t resist books about them. I am in love with the idea of the travel, the camaraderie, the glitter in a way that I will never love the reality of the bright lights, loud music and the clowns. What I am a fan of is the musical Barnum, and the film The Greatest Showman, so Jasper’s comparison of his own show and curiosities with Barnum’s added a familiarity that really brought the circus to life for me.
I started reading this book when I really wasn’t very well and I fell asleep about a quarter of the way in – in just that short period, the characters had got so far under my skin that I had a very vivid dream of the story continuing while I slept. It was so real that it was quite disconcerting to pick the book back up and discover that what I thought had happened was actually just my imagination working overtime.
Circus of Wonders is a beautiful book and I loved reading about the friendships that Nell forms as she finds her new place in the world.
The wonder of the circus juxtaposed against flashbacks to the Crimean war and the secret that Jasper and Toby share give this book a haunting beauty, generating similar feelings in me as Robert Dinsdale’s The Toymakers. Anyone who knows me will know that this is extremely high praise as The Toymakers is one of my absolute favourite books.