Book Review: Elizabeth Macneal’s “Circus of Wonders”

Like most people with this book, I brought it mainly because the cover was so visually pleasing – which I can admit in retrospect. With striking gold against black and a circus-style emerald striped pattern, it stood out from the shelf and drew me in. From the blurb, it certainly didn’t seem like it would be my cup of tea, but as the cover was so beautiful, and I did keep seeing so many reviews on it, I thought I would give it a go. Finally getting around to reading it, Circus of wonders was a lovely and immersive story, but I definitely wasn’t blown away.

The Plot…

Set in the 1860s, the story centres around Nell, a young woman leading a rather quiet and ordinary life in a small village, picking violets for a living and idolising her brother, Charlie. Yet, there is something extraordinary about Nell: she was born with a skin condition where constellations of birth-marks blossom on every inch of her skin, an oddity in her small community that brings Nell masses of unwanted attention and a heart-wrenching sense of isolation. That is, until Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders comes to town, brandishing the peculiarities of human nature.

At once, Nell is intrigued by these individuals – these wonders – initially confused as to why they would choose not to hide away, instead swinging from great heights in costumes, performing to the crowds below. She thought their time in her small world would be fleeting, their show packing up and moving on to the next town, leaving her to her mundane life with Charlie. But her father had other ideas. In an inconceivable display of betrayal, Nell’s father sells her to Jasper Jupiter, setting up the moment where she would be kidnapped, ripped away from the life she knew and shoved into a wagon. With thoughts only of her dear brother and the bitter betrayal she has experienced, Nell is determined to defy Jasper at first, anger driving her from within, but soon she realises that maybe being sold by her father had been the best thing that had happened to her.

As Nell finds her feet in her new circus community, she becomes the most famous wonder of Jasper Jupiter’s show, even attracting the interest of the Queen. Little did she know that this fame may be her ultimate downfall – if there’s one thing Jasper does not like, it’s to be overshadowed; eclipsed by one of his oddities.

He made her all that she is after all.

A wonderful story of personal growth and finding self-worth, the plot was compelling, but not necessarily gripping; I didn’t find myself unable to put it down, like I would do with other books. As the story turned darker towards the climax of the novel, the pace was definitely quickened and it became much more exciting, however, the ending almost disappointed me. I say almost, because I haven’t quite landed on my opinion of the ending yet. I actually finished this book a couple of days ago, and I’ve tried to take that time to work out whether I liked the conclusion of the story or not, and I remain conflicted. In a way, it was an appropriate ending, one that displayed female empowerment and fully exhibited the growth of Nell’s character into a strong woman, yet I still felt deflated when I turned the final page. But I guess things don’t always work out how you’d like them to – despite my hope for a different ending, it was not a bad ending at all.

The Characters…

The pivotal character was of course Nell – The Queen of the Moon and Stars – later celebrated by the crowds of fans as their Nellie Moon. From her initial self-loathing, the incredible betrayal of her father, her long for home and the comfort of her brother, and her admirable progression within the Circus, Nell was an interesting and unique character to read along with. However, while I empathised with Nell’s story, there were elements of her character that I just couldn’t relate to – such as her desire to never settle; to always have fame and fortune and perform to large crowds. When offered the alternative of a risk-free, quiet cottage-life, Nell couldn’t be less interested, a preference I couldn’t understand myself. But, having hidden herself away for the majority of her life, believing herself to be a freak of nature, it is unsurprising that once she has discovered her worth, she would not want to hide away ever again.

Perhaps the most interesting character of all was Jasper. Throughout the novel, this unbelievably self-centred and narcissistic man seems to unravel, prompting the start of a chaotic descent. Mistakes that begin with borrowing a large sum of money from a notoriously savage lender- The Jackal – Jasper soon loses all grip on reality in the pursuit of fame and wonders, desperate for the world to soon know his name. Nothing could prepare him for the rage and thirst for vengeance when they come to know Nellie Moon’s name instead.

Would I recommend?

An interesting and pleasing tale of the wonders of the world, laced with menacing undertones, a glimmer of romance, and a touching element of unconditional motherly-love for a child, the Circus of Wonders was definitely worth reading. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not one of those books that I would tell people to read constantly after finishing it. It was good, and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t necessarily love it.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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