Circus of Wonders – Elizabeth MacNeal

Published by: Picador
Pages: 384
Date released: 13/05/2021
Date read: 23/05/2021

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 Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

It took me a few attempts to get into Elizabeth MacNeal’s previous book The Doll Factory, but I knew as soon as I started this book it would not take me long to finish it – in fact I’d read it cover to cover in about five hours.

We follow Nell, the “leopard girl” – born with birthmarks covering her body – as she is sold to Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders, performing as the Queen of the Moon and Stars. Here she meets Stella the bearded woman, Brunette the giantess, Pearl the albino child, and most importantly, Toby, Jasper’s quiet and unassuming brother, who holds a dark secret. Their love puts Nell on a journey she could never envisage.

There are some terrible hardships faced by people in so-called “freak shows”, and you can feel these hardships spilling off the page whilst reading this book. It is uncomfortable and frightening but holds a kind of magical power. In a time where unique people were dubbed freaks, and women were still owned by men, with no voice of their own, Nell and Stella provide a power unlike any we’ve seen. They use their differences to their benefits, providing us with a magical road to follow them down.

MacNeal has a way of describing the fantastical and the unusual and making it so real. She draws us in until we can’t separate our real lives with the fantasy of the fiction. She makes every character and location and love and hate and problem so real that we feel we truly belong to their world. She concocts twists and turns so the book doesn’t end how you assume, but you don’t feel short-changed in any way.

We all want to be “someone”, but maybe it’s best to just be ourselves.

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