CIRCUS OF WONDERS
BY ELIZABETH MACNEAL
Elizabeth Macneal dishes up a show spectacular with this bewitching story of circus life in Victorian England. The Den are huge fans of Macneal’s first book, 'The Doll Factory' (reviewed in Den’s Library) and this second book, once again draws us into the outcasts of life at the end of the 19th century, capturing the story behind the circus performers chosen because of their physical differences to be part of the highly fashionable troupes of touring circuses travelling through the English villages with the aim of securing a site in London and performing before the Queen.
The story is narrated through three characters. The first is Nell, a young girl, who is covered in birthmarks which her father calls "stains” causing her skin to looked blotched, like a leopard. She hides away from society in a small village picking and candying violets for London’s high society and beyond. The only time Nell feels like herself is when she swims in the sea like a mermaid, or dances to music, becoming so absorbed in the act that she can forget about her appearance. When the circus reaches Nell’s village, circus fever takes over. Nell’s father sees an opportunity to make some money and sells his daughter to Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders.
Jasper grew up dreaming of running his own circus. Having experienced war in the Crimea and losing his best friend Dash, he fulfils his dream becoming his own Master of Ceremonies. From the onset, you realise Jasper has a strange hold over his younger brother Toby. Toby, whilst being devoted to his brother, has his own secrets. Jasper is ruthlessly ambitious and his determination to own the best circus and perform before the Queen drive him to take dangerous risks which expose him to the underworld of London.
Nell’s life is transformed as she headlines the show with her aerobatic routine and falls in love. But as Jasper becomes ever more manic in his determination to own the best circus in the country, will Nell’s tenuous stardom be usurped? Macneal charts her life as she navigates fame and fortune whilst being regarded as curiosity to be wondered at.
This is a gripping, heart-breaking and evocative novel. Macneal tells the human story behind circus performers at this time and the juxtapositions that they face of being both marvelled and ridiculed at the same time. Jasper may be exploiting his stars, even humiliating them, but equally he is giving them the extraordinary opportunity to shine – like the moon – Nellie Moon.