Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

atmospheric and evocative | supreme story-telling | rich and lavish | vibrant and moody

A glittering, begrimed tale of love and self-determination flush with richly detailed prose. Sumptuous, macabre, enthralling; a perfect slice of Victoriana.’
Jane Healey

what it says on the cover …

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.

PUBLISHED: 13th May 2020
SHELF: Historical Fiction | Romance
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Macneal
PUBLISHER: Picador Books
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle

I have always been fascinated by the circus – the illusion, the tawdry glamour, the idea of an itinerant life, and above all the wonder. The more I read about the Victorian circus, the more obsessed I became. This was the century of spectacle, when the circus exploded, when great menageries toured small country towns, when certain performers could become rich and famous. It was a world which exploited and empowered, where physical difference became a booming industry.
But the question that lingered – as I read about countless performers, about still-famous personages like Joseph Merrick, dubbed ‘The Elephant Man’ – is the one that always drives me to write. How would it have felt? It was then that I began writing about Nell
Introduction from Elizabeth Macneal

my review

Oh, how differently I would’ve felt about my school-days history lessons if my tutor had the gift of storytelling that shines out of Elizabeth Macneal’s books!  And yet, these days, I hungrily seek out historical fiction novels; stories crafted by writers who seek to convey fascinating moments in time, artfully wrapped in a captivating work of fiction. I get such a thrill when I skip straight to the end of a hist-fic book to hoover-up the author’s notes … to discover the factual framework over which they artfully drape their characters and stories. The Circus of Wonders is a paragon of this genre. Its story enveloped me and carried me back to its 1866 setting, holding my attention as raptly as the Victorian public looked upon spectacles such as Jasper Jupiter’s.

The Circus of Wonders is a rich and evocative story of Nell, sold to Jasper Jupiter by her father for just twenty pounds.  Nell’s top-to-toe constellation of birthmarks set her apart, forcing her to live a stifled, isolated existence, and yet she’s brimming with hope for freedom and adventure. Her new life in the circus gifts her the sense of belonging she’s longed for, whilst Jasper regards her as his golden ticket to the fame and fortune he craves. Jasper is full of his own self-congratulation when his Circus of Wonders secures a highly coveted pitch at the Southwark Pleasure Gardens, but he never expected Nell’s celebrated success to eclipse his own.  Nor did he foresee his gentle, slavishly-loyal younger brother, Toby, falling head over heels in love with his newest ‘monster’.

In contrast to the superficially gaudy glamours of the circus, a darker underbelly snakes its way throughout the story.  Themes of objectification and bigotry, control and exploitation run freely as the author brings to life the bitter truths of the Victorian appetite for ‘freaks’ and ‘monsters’. And the still-fresh memories of the battlefield haunt Jasper and Toby as they struggle to move on from their experiences during the Crimean War.

I enjoyed how the author augmented her characters, particularly Jasper. It would be all too easy to view him as the archetypal villain based on the blurb alone, but he’s been written with some very complex layers which make him impossible to dislike.  Yes he can be cruel and certainly greedy, but beneath the vain façade he simmers with insecurities that make him as much a victim of the fickle whims of the era, as the acts are victims of the gilded cage he holds them in.

Whilst the story progresses at a genteel pace, the final chapters – by contrast – barrel towards a crescendo that’s befitting of the attention-commanding drama Jasper so craves.  But it brings with it a fear for the futures of the three main characters, and both Nell and Toby are forced to take brave, decisive steps.  Blessedly, the author gifts us an epilogue set ten years later; a chapter which brings a sense of peace, if not the happily-ever-after ending that a many readers might crave.

This is a beautifully-written, vibrant, treasure of a book, shimmering with atmosphere and redolent visual imagery.  The further into the book I read, the more aware I became of the how the scenic influences each played a role in enhancing the mood of the moment; the lowing and pacing animals, the voracity of the campfire, the portent of the weather, the fluctuations of troupe dynamics, the crack of a whip.

The lavish and eloquent detailing of Circus of Wonders offers its readers tales within tales, whilst the authentic factual basis and social scrutiny make for an unforgettable and thought-provoking read. I loved this book for its highly original and insightful narrative, and applaud its sensitive study of sibling relationships, belonging, and difference. Setting aside the circus context, this is a story of humanity in all its glories and ugliness. The writing has a quiet intensity that draws the reader closer; it’s neither explicit nor showy and yet it’s absolutely spellbinding.

Thank you to Picador / Pan Macmillan for sending me an ARC of Circus Of Wonders in return for an honest, impartial review.

elizabeth macneal

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Edinburgh and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA in 2017 where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship. 

Elizabeth sponsors an annual scholarship of £7000 for a student on the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, named after my grandparents Enid and Arthur Bourne.

Elizabeth’s first novel, The Doll Factory, has been translated into 29 languages. It is set in 1850s London, and it is about a young woman who aspires to be an artist, and the man whose obsession may destroy her world forever. It was a Sunday Times bestseller, a Radio 2 Book Club pick, a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime and a Waterstones Book of the Month. It is currently being adapted for a major TV series.

Her second novel, Circus of Wonders is about a girl who is kidnapped by a travelling circus, and who must find her voice in this dark and spectacular world. Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is a story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility. It will be published in May 2021. It was reviewed by The Guardian as ‘glittering’ and a work of ‘subtlety and originality.’

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