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