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Circus of Wonders


Circus of Wonders

Elizabeth Macneal, the internationally bestselling author of THE DOLL FACTORY, returns with CIRCUS OF WONDERS, an atmospheric and spellbinding novel of identity, perception and truth.

In 1860s England, the “deformitomania” craze has swept the continent, and circuses boasting acts like Stella the Songbird, bearded like a bear; Minnie, the famed behemoth; Brunette, the Welsh giantess; and even the world’s smallest museum of curious objects tour the countryside, delighting guests with their show-stopping performances, occasionally picking up new acts along the way. None of this is known to 19-year-old Nell, who lives with her father and brother in a small coastal farming village.

Born covered in constellations of birthmarks, Nell is the bane of her father’s existence and the joke of the town. Only her brother seems to see her clearly, and even he is a little too forceful in his claims that he loves her even though she is spotted…not because she is, or even just because she is her, spots and all. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders comes to town, Nell is shocked to see people like her not only accepted by the townsfolk, but celebrated for their differences and gazed upon with love and adoration. Her drunkard father, seeing a chance to free himself from her, sells her to Jasper for 20 pounds, but this is only the beginning of Nell’s story.

"Macneal has created a totally immersive novel in which the time and place feel so real that you can hear the roar of the lion and smell the roasting chestnuts as you make your way to your (fictional) seat."

Although Nell initially bristles at her gilded prison --- a carriage that Jasper has decorated in peacock feathers, expensive leather-bound books and various curiosities --- she soon begins to see salvation in Jasper, someone who can turn her, a hated leopard girl, into a star. As she meets and learns more about the other performers, she sees not freaks or monsters, but ordinary people who have taken their physical deformities and, combined with the act of performance, turned them into something extraordinary.

With Jasper set on turning her into his star attraction, the Queen of the Moon and Stars, Nell learns to unlock her own personality and take pride in her differences. Very quickly, she realizes that her father’s cruel sale of her might be the best thing to ever happen to her. The freedom is intoxicating, but so too is the chance to discover her own voice and use it to make friends and even find love.

The object of Nell’s interest is none other than Jasper’s brother, Toby, the circus’s photographer who creates dazzling cartes de visite of each of the performers to be shared with guests and would-be guests. He is a large man, but not so large as to be celebrated as the world’s fattest anything, and he is quietly competent, perfectly happy to live in his ringmaster brother’s shadow. Nell alone seems to spot something magical within Toby, but even she cannot see the dark shadows of his past.

In alternating chapters, Macneal walks readers through countless performances, bumpy cross-country carriage rides, and all the whimsy and magic of a night at the circus, as seen through the eyes of growingly independent Nell; gentle, bumbling Toby; and manic, fame-obsessed Jasper. As tensions rise between Jasper --- desperate to become the next Barnum --- and his star, who is steadily outshining him, Macneal digs deeper into the relationship between them, which comes with its own competitiveness and dangerous repercussions. With each of these fully realized, hopelessly relatable characters wanting to secure their place in the world, their ambitions, alliances and betrayals cross and circumvent one another for a plot that is every bit as enticing as the greatest show on earth.

Returning once again to Victorian England, Macneal has created a totally immersive novel in which the time and place feel so real that you can hear the roar of the lion and smell the roasting chestnuts as you make your way to your (fictional) seat. It is difficult not to make comparisons to Sara Gruen’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS when you first pick up the book, but Macneal has really made the circus tent her own here. She goes beyond the macabre idea of deformitomania to explore what it would really feel like to be ogled at and displayed like a trained monkey. She also unpacks the fine line between experiencing the greatest amount of power and control you have ever had and recognizing that it comes at the cost of your pride and humanity.

Nell is tenderly written, and the choices she faces, as well as her responses to them, are unforgettable. Her slow realization that she may have traded one prison for another, albeit gilded, is among some of the most heartbreaking arcs I have ever read. Through Nell, and then through Toby’s steady growth away from his controlling brother, Macneal dives deep into the notions of identity, ownership and exploitation. I cannot say much about Jasper’s storyline for fear of ruining the plot, but here too the author excels, crafting a thoroughly wicked and arrogant villain whose rise and fall are shocking, horrifying and so very satisfying.

Perfect for readers of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, SIN EATER and THE 7 ½ DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE, CIRCUS OF WONDERS is a soaring, moving story with a heroine you won’t soon forget.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 25, 2022

Circus of Wonders
by Elizabeth Macneal