Circus Of Wonders By Elizabeth Macneal – A Review

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 13th May 2021

I will always read anything Elizabeth Macneal writes, and this is due to the fact that she not only writes great books, she weaves some kind of magical literary spell around your heart. Her books are perfect pieces of fiction that fizz with vibrant colourful ‘warts and all’ life and burst with animated, lively characters.

I read and ADORED The Doll Factory back in 2019 (my review is here ) and it made it onto my books of the year list aswell (and OF COURSE sits in pride of place on my forever shelf).

Elizabeth’s second novel, Circus Of Wonders transports us back in time to both Victorian London and the Crimean War. It is 1866 and Nell, a flower picker from a southern coastal village is living frugally with her brother Charlie and drunken father. Nell has birthmarks over her body which set her apart from the other people in her village and mark her out as a second rate citizen, someone to be ignored or feared, someone who is even considered cursed.

When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus Of Wonders arrives in the village, the villagers are beside themselves with excitement. Jasper Jupiter has brought along not only his menagerie of wild animals to exhibit but other special acts such as Stella the bearded lady and Brunette the giantess. Nell’s hard-up father sees an opportunity and siezes it, selling Nell off to Jasper as a ‘leopard girl’.

Nell is at first desperately upset at having been betrayed but soon realises that life in the circus might not be as bad as she initially feared. She becomes close to the other acts and especially close to Toby, Jasper’s brother, a photographer and general dogsbody and muscle around the circus.

Jasper has high hopes and lofty aspirations to be the owner of the greatest show on earth and uses Nell’s unique looks along with some mechanical trickery to raise the profile of the show and get the customers flocking in to see ‘Nellie Moon – Queen Of The Moon And Stars’. With some backstreet financial assistance, he takes his circus to the pleasure gardens of Victorian London, with dreams of putting a show on for the Queen herself. Nell begins to enjoy being looked at and admired by the crowds, their chanting and adoration sweeping her up. But what will happen when Jasper’s main act starts to become bigger than him?….

This book just bursts with life and Elizabeth Macneal’s writing draws you in right from the off. The sights, sounds and smells of the circus are written in such brilliant detail that they are an assault on your senses, in a good way! You are right there in the centre of the action and I could imagine every tiny detail.

The level and quality of historical detail that has gone into this book is just mind blowing. I absolutely loved the references to Queen Victoria as I have a bit of an obsession with her!

Elizabeth Macneal crafts such an brilliant tale that takes you soaring high in the sky (quite literally) and brings you back down to the dark underbelly of circus life with a bump.

It tackles the subject of agency over your own body and whether these circus acts are being exploited for their differences or rescued from a life of exclusion and poverty. It’s certainly something to think about and had me googling the likes of P J Barnam and his contemporaries who are also mentioned in the book.

The ending of the book to me was just perfect. It doesn’t get all tied up in a heartwarming perfect bow and I love that.

Elizabeth Macneal has done it again and written a perfect tale that I will recommended again and again!

Thank you so much Camilla Elworthy and Picador for my review copy and my beautiful finished copy which will sit next to The Doll Factory on my Forever Shelf.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx


The Child By Kjersti A. Skomsvold (translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken) – A Review

Publisher: Granta

Publication Date: 6th May 2021

If I’m honest I’m not sure where I saw this book. It was one of those ones that pops up on social media or as a suggestion when you’re googling and I decided to do the cheeky ask and Granta willingly obliged.

What drew me to this book was the fact that it explores new motherhood which as you know is something I am particularly interested in for lots of reasons and is one of the main reasons I pick books like this up. This one was also blurbed by Sarah Moss so who am I to argue?

It is a very short and punchy book at a mere 155 pages and feels even more sharp for its vignette style.

We meet our narrator, a Norwegian woman living in Oslo, a writer and mother of two very young children born within 18 months of each other. The story is told from the perspective of the mother talking to her second child, a girl, as she writes about her first child, her son.

It starts off from the birth of the son which is written very viscerally yet also with a poetic and lyrical edge. It is from the springboard of birth that we then go on to learn more about our narrator. She is a woman who has been previously ‘ill’. This illness is never named but it is quite apparent to me that this illness was depression. She is fearful of this illness returning, particularly after the birth of her son but is also steeped in anxiety even before her first child is born. She is worried that if she accepts she is pregnant and tells people about it, that she will lose the baby.

She is desperate to see her stomach grow with the life inside her in order for the child to be safe whilst at the same time being in awe of her body and the odd sensation of it holding a human being inside it.

After he is born she struggles to write and spends her days worrying about all the potential harm that could come to her precious child. The seemingly innocuous everyday occurrences that could turn lethal.

‘I put the child in the horrid pram. I didn’t want to think about all the things that could happen, but I couldn’t stop myself. I imagined how every car that came towards us would swerve onto the pavement and mow us down, and I gripped the handle as if my treacherous hands might let go at any moment…’

It is in writing about this and ridding herself of these feelings that she can go on to relax a little more with her second child. She uses writing about her difficulties with sleeping and anxieties and intrusive thoughts as a kind of therapy which enables her to bond with her daughter more easily.

The timeline is not linear and it took me a few pages to realise what was going on and who the narrator was taking to. However I soon got into my stride and fully understood how the narrator was portraying her story.

We also learn about her husband Bo and their relationship prior to deciding to have a family and even as far back as them meeting and embarking on a difficult time in actually getting together. I enjoyed this element of the book which came fairly near the end as it gave Bo a more rounded background and allowed me to understand his personality a little more.

The writing is at times pinpoint sharp and based firmly in the sometimes messy realities of babies and motherhood and yet there are also moments of dreamlike sequences which are poetic and almost ethereal. I think this was helped by the sleepless fugue that the narrator floated through each day. The bone weary exhaustion of early motherhood.

I sat down and devoured this book in one sitting and really enjoyed it. It is a look at motherhood, family, marriage and bonding. If that sounds like you’re kind of thing, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy.

Thank you as always to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx