‘Circus of Wonders’ is a gritty yet engaging slice of historical fiction, following the life of Nell as she is thrust from quiet village life into the blood, sweat, and glitter of Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders. It’s beautifully written, drawing the reader in and building a gorgeous sense of atmosphere and tension throughout. When the curtain falls – as it must – the story lingers. This isn’t always a happy story, but it’s an evocative and worthwhile read.
In the year 1866, Nell picks violets for a living. Her entire world is her beloved brother, her swims in the sea – and the disdain from the rest of the village for the birthmarks covering her skin. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in her village, Nell’s insular life is thrown into disarray. Sold by her father to Jasper Jupiter as his newest curiosity, she finds herself alone – but, for the first time in her life, she also finds herself admired rather than scorned. Slowly, she finds friendship – and fame. But fame is a fickle beast, and the higher Nell flies, the further she has to fall.
The novel is told from three perspectives – Nell’s, Jasper Jupiter’s, and Jasper’s brother Toby’s. Each lends the story a slightly different angle – but while each is initially cast into a role, as the story goes on each casts free from their initial mooring, becoming far more complex than they first appeared. Nell starts as the victim. Set apart by her birthmarks, she is the subject of mockery in her village, and even her loving brother sees her as different – and thus inferior. When her father sells her, it’s the lowest moment in her life – she feels lower than an animal, trapped in a cage. However, as time passes, she goes from the victim to the hero, the star of the show. The fame is addicting, glorious – and she grows drunk on success, dreaming of dizzier and dizzier heights. She can’t connect to a simple village life like her brother’s any more – not when she can be such a wonder. However, for all her glory, she’s still trapped – still that animal in a cage. Her thoughts on the dichotomy are fascinating. Nell isn’t always likeable, but it’s still impossible not to root for her, and fear for her inevitable fall.
Jasper, of course, starts as the villain. He’s marched into Nell’s peaceful village and purchased her like a prize pony. He’s a bully, beating his workers when they don’t do what he wants and forcing everyone to play along to his whims. He expects the women to cater to his pleasure, and he’s certain Nell will fall in line. However, even villains have other sides to their story. Jasper is selfish and needlessly cruel, but he’s also wounded and grieving. He’s naive, taking risks without paying attention to the consequences. He sees himself as a genius, fills himself up with his own importance – and no-one in his life holds him accountable. No-one ever has. Jasper is a horrible person, but more of a spoilt child than someone deliberately calculating and cruel. His fall is as predictable as Nell’s and, despite everything, by the end it’s hard not to feel sorry for him too.
Where Nell and Jasper are protagonist and antagonist, Toby is the supporting cast. As a child, Toby dreamed of the circus he and his brother would create together – but while Jasper has the strength, charisma, and attractiveness to be a star, Toby is seen as dull. Simple. The sort of person who can only fade into the background. Toby has spent his entire life in his brother’s shadow. He longs to step into the spotlight himself, but he can’t – he’s too scared, and he can’t betray his brother. Initially, Toby is the sort of character to be pitied. However, as his role grows and he starts to take more control over his life, he becomes far more complex. By the end, Toby is my favourite of the main characters. He isn’t entirely a good person – he’s done some awful things, and been complicit in far more – but he’s exceptionally loyal, and he always tries to be better than he is.
The atmosphere this novel creates is incredible. The circus seems to live and breathe, every sense hit in some way. MacNeal creates visceral images – not always pleasant, but always a feast for the senses. The plot is almost secondary to the simple feel of the circus in motion. There’s a constant underlying tension. The performers twirl across the stage, reaching dizzier and dizzier heights – but at some point the curtain will come down, and the show will end. The only questions are what the final act will be – and what happens next.
The denouement, when it happens, is a predictable but fitting end. There’s an epilogue, offering a little insight into the fallout. I have mixed feelings about epilogues – I’m a big fan of ambiguity, and allowing readers to muse on their own endings – but this is one of the stronger ones, still leaving the door open for the reader to fill in the gaps.
Overall, ‘Circus of Wonders’ is an engaging piece of historical fiction with an exceptional sense of atmosphere and characters who linger. A recommended read.
Thanks to NetGalley and Picador for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Picador
Hardback: 13th May 2021