Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal
Published by Picador Books on 13th May
Available from West End Lane Books,
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What They Say
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.
What I Say
I could be very coy and give you little hints about what I thought of Circus of Wonders, but I think we know each other well enough for me to start off by saying that I completely fell in love with this novel. If you loved Elizabeth’s debut novel The Doll Factory, then I can absolutely tell you that Circus of Wonder will not disappoint you – in fact I think I loved it more!
Nell leads a life where she is constantly aware she is different from those around her. She has birthmarks all over her body, and has only known that she should be ashamed of how she looks and hidden away from the world. Her brother Charlie tries to protect her from those who make comments about her, and her father doesn’t know how to react to Nell and is ashamed of his daughter.
When Jasper Jupiter and his Circus Of Wonders comes to their village, Nell’s father sees an opportunity to make some money and take away his shame, and he sells Nell to Jasper for £20. What Jasper doesn’t know is that his brother Toby, who works at the Circus, has already seen and spoken to Nell and is totally captivated by her.
The thing is, although at first Nell fights tooth and nail to escape from the Circus, she starts to realise as she sees the other performers, that this in fact might be the very place that allows her that freedom to be herself that she has never experienced before.
Nell becomes Nellie Moon, and is the star of Jasper’s show, which the showman loves, until her popularity eclipses his. When Queen Victoria finally attends the Circus, it is Nell she invites to the palace and Jasper is devastated. The persona he has created for Nell is more adored than him, and this is what he is unable to handle.
While Jasper is dealing with his waning popularity and ever mounting debts due to an ominous lender nicknamed the Jackal, Nell finally seems to have found her place in the world. The public adore her, she has found a group of friends in the Circus, and in Toby she has found a man who loves her for who she is.
Toby undoubtedly loves Nell, but he and Jasper are bound not only by their familial bond, but also a devastating secret that happened when they were in the Crimea War. Nell asks Toby who he would choose, and ultimately it is his choice that changes both their lives forever.
The beauty and power of Circus Of Wonders are the things that are not explicitly stated, it is the things the reader can determine that adds to the poignancy of Elizabeth’s writing. The performers at the Circus know that Jasper employs them, but they believe he has also given them the chance to finally be themselves, to be seen for who they truly are.
However, we can see that Jasper views them as commodities, things to be bought and sold for the best price to give him the biggest opportunity to make the most money. When Nell’s fame eclipses his, he has no hesitation in deciding to dismantle the Circus and rebuild it, discarding the performers without a second thought in order to maintain the ultimate control over his Circus.
This was for me, also a novel of identity and free will, where Nell and the other members of the Circus are trying to find a voice, a place where they can fit in without prejudice or judgement, and on the surface, the Circus seems to be this utopia. As we spend more time with them, we can see how every aspect of their lives is controlled by Jasper’s will – they can express themselves as long as it fits in with what he wants, and what he finds impossible to handle is when someone like Nell finds who she truly is, and then decides she wants to be in charge of her own fate. This is what Jasper cannot accept, that those he believes he has saved to line his own pockets have through him found their own voice which is not what he wants to hear.
From the moment you turn the first page of Circus of Wonders you are totally immersed in a world where you absolutely see, hear and feel everything that is happening around you. It’s hard to describe how affecting Elizabeth’s prose is, but for me, it is a novel that is impossible to stop thinking about when you have read it. In Nell, Toby and Jasper, Elizabeth has created incredible and truly real characters whose lives will undoubtedly and indelibly stay with you for a long time after you have read the perfect final pages.
I absolutely loved Circus of Wonders, and it will be one of my #MostSelfishReads2021
Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador Books for my gifted proof and finished copies.
You can visit the West End Lane Bookshop here for your copy and all your Bookish Needs!