Book Review – Circus Of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Pages: 375
Published: 13th May 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Discrimination, animal death/cruelty, attempted rape, sexual references

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?

This is a book that tells a competent story about a fascinating aspect of history and highlights some eye-catching themes in the process, yet also does not live very long in the memory. With some unique characters and powerful writing, there is a lot of imagination to be found, although it fails to truly spark into life in order to deliver something genuinely gripping.

As the title would suggest, the landscape of the circus is right at the heart of this book and that gives it a very specific vibe. Set in the Victorian era in which people who were physically different or of a supposedly unusual appearance were sadly seen as curiosities whose only benefit was to entertain the masses, it centres around the topic of objectification with impressive depth, as well as the issues surrounding it.

Nell has always been an outcast in her village. A young woman whose arms and legs are covered in birthmarks, she is treated as almost inhuman by many who regard her with fascination yet equally try to avoid her. When the circus arrives nearby, she suffers the ultimate betrayal when her father sells her to the showman, Jasper Jupiter.

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to escape, Nell becomes resigned to her fate, eventually being convinced by Jasper that being part of the circus and performing in front of enthralled crowds will give her a much happier way of life. Jasper believes she is the final piece in his jigsaw towards being the country’s greatest show, christening her the Queen of the Moon and Stars and creating wings for her to fly during the final act.

The arrival of Nell inspires the show to great success and she becomes famous, and also develops a close bond with Jasper’s brother Toby, who is unassuming and resorts to desperate measures in order to be noticed. Meanwhile, Jasper is increasingly reckless in his pursuit of universal acclaim, taking risks that put everyone’s lives in danger.

It is a truly shocking moment when Nell is sold by her father without a second thought, and that ranks as the most effective part of the plot. Elsewhere, the way it examined the objectification of Nell and the other performers was fascinating and there was also the simmering tension between her and Jasper which ultimately spilled over with unsettling results.

Unfortunately, that was only half of the story and the rest of it was slightly underwhelming. The plot lacked a bit of fluidity with occasional flashbacks to past events which carried little relevance in the grand scheme of things, while I did not feel the least bit invested in the romance between Nell and Toby. On the other hand, the relationship Nell develops with the four-year-old Pearl is much more moving.

The book is written entirely in the third person, switching between the perspectives of Nell, Toby, and Jasper. Given her rather unhappy existence and how others define her based on her appearance, Nell is the easiest of the three to connect with. She wrestles with the dilemma of life in the circus throughout, and is extremely spirited.

Although Toby’s arc does have an interesting premise of him being overshadowed by his brother and wanting to be noticed, he is not a very exciting character to read about and I never looked forward to his chapters. He was also lacking in any serious character development, and one might go so far as to say that the story would have been no worse without him.

There was much more to get your teeth into when it comes to Jasper, who is quite pathological and ruthless in the sense that he sees the likes of Nell and the other performers as his property. What makes him reasonably complex is that he is an extreme narcissist and has something almost akin to a god complex, inwardly comparing himself to Victor Frankenstein and the mythological Greek figure of Daedalus as he expects the world to acknowledge his brilliant mind.

The other circus employees are an eclectic bunch, with the strong-willed Stella in particular making an impression. Pearl was one of the more heart-breaking example of how these people were just completely dehumanised, while the author missed an opportunity to explore Brunette’s sub-plot in more detail – powerful though it is.

During Nell’s chapters the circus is made to feel like a claustrophobic environment, and that provides the book with its main source of atmosphere. The time period does not play a huge role, yet at the same time is unmistakably Victorian from the attitudes and snippets of society that we do see, which are captured well.

The writing is generally good is it truly emphasises the shock that Nell feels at being sold and how Jasper gets so carried away with his own arrogance, but I must take issue with the author’s frequent references to dead animals which was entirely unnecessary. The plot at least does not follow a predictable path, and the ending is suitably bittersweet.

Overall, an impressive portrayal of what it is like to be marginalised and the double-edged sword of gaining notoriety, but otherwise there is nothing that lifts it into something absorbing or makes it difficult to put down. It has its fair share of impactful moments and uninspiring ones, so while it is an acceptable read, it could have been much more than that.

An okay read with an interesting concept. I just would have liked to connect with the story and the characters more.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐

3 thoughts on “Book Review – Circus Of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

  1. Reading is such a personal journey isn’t it? I read this last year and really loved it. I found the lives of the characters were really absorbing and the story stayed in my head for days afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

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