Book Review: Circus of Wonders – Elizabeth Macneal

Publisher: Picador
Format: Hardcover
Release Date: 13th May, 2021

Rating: 5/5 Stars

I originally received a digital arc of this book from NetGalley, however as Griffin Books were doing an event to celebrate the release, my wonderful boyfriend got me a ticket to the virtual event, which came with a copy of the book! Definitely check them out – their events are wonderful, both on and offline, and they offer book subscriptions as well as online ordering!

Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, The Doll Factory, showed this was a writer with a lot of skill and talent. Macneal demonstrates this once again in her second novel, Circus of Wonders, and there won’t be a future release of hers that I’d ever miss. The Doll Factory is more Thriller than Circus of Wonders, but both are set in Victorian era, featuring strong female protagonists who, for one reason or another, are slightly discarded by the society they live in.

For Nell, this means standing out in her small coastal village. Birthmarks speckle her skin, and though she attempts to cover them up, the villagers stay away from her. Her whole world is her brother and the sea, until she is kidnapped by Jasper Jupiter, sold by her father. At the circus, however, she sees a different way of living. Not one hiding in the shadows, but right in the centre, drawing crowds and enabling Jasper to finally make his circus bigger, even drawing the attention of Queen Victoria herself.

Jasper has his own secrets, along with his brother Toby, but as Toby and Nell grow closer, and Nell grows more famous, the secrets grow, threatening to eclipse the relationship between the two brothers, the relationship between Toby and Nell, and her fame.

In both books, Macneal tells the stories of those who don’t usually have their stories heard. With Nell, it’s a chance to experience the circus from the other side, the performers themselves rather than through the eyes of those at the centre of the ring. It feels like it would have been easy to have Nell’s character arc one in which she shuns shame and refuses to participate, but Macneal moves away from the easy road, and gives us a protagonist who almost embraces the fame, even if she doesn’t necessarily like the way it’s gained at the hands of Jasper.

As a newcomer to this world, we get to see the cracks in the façade through Nell, while we also witness the magic. There’s a combination of the old and the new, too, and a look at the way technology is slowly growing during this time period, while old ways are still firmly in place. To achieve the wonderful fantasy of the circus, Jasper employs machinery, creating contraptions to help his circus stand out. The glossy, magical spectacle of The Greatest Showman is gone in Macneal’s own circus, giving us the raw truth instead, and slipping in the names of those Barnum took advantage of, comparing and contrasting them with the performers in Jasper’s show.

It’s easy to see the care Macneal has used when dealing with these characters. She gives them full lives, personalities, embracing them outside their appearance and status. She shows us the type of fortitude needed to survive this environment, but also shows the different opportunities presented to those who did embrace their fame.

Contrasted with the world Nell is slowly embracing, we also see glimpses of the Crimean war, through the eyes of both Jasper and Toby. Jasper as a soldier who, along with his friend Dash, embraces the war and adventure. Toby arrives as a photographer, and to him, Dash represents the growing chasm between him and the brother he adores. Through these scenes we got more of an idea of the two brothers, what ties them together and what stands between them. We get a depth to both Jasper and Toby, as well as a mystery in what, exactly, happened to Dash.

Macneal weaves these two worlds together well, the ‘present day’ flowing well into flashback without breaking the story. She’s also effective at grounding the story in the time period, creating a vivid, real setting, reality serving as a backdrop to the fictional story.

It really is a fantastic novel, with a great choice of characters in a wonderful setting, and well worth checking out. I can’t wait to see what Macneal releases next.

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