Review: A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington (2020)

Blurb:

A lyrical and atmospheric homage to the strange and extraordinary, perfect for fans of Angela Carter and Erin Morgenstern.

This is the story of The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived…

Born into a post-war circus family, our nameless star was unwanted and forgotten, abandoned in the shadows of the big top. Until the bright light of Serendipity Wilson threw her into focus.

Now an adult, haunted by an incident in which a child was lost from the circus, our narrator, a tightrope artiste, weaves together her spellbinding tales of circus legends, earthy magic and folklore, all in the hope of finding the child… But will her story be enough to bring the pair together again?

Beautiful and intoxicating, A Girl Made of Air brings the circus to life in all of its grime and glory; Marina, Manu, Serendipity Wilson, Fausto, Big Gen and Mouse will live long in the hearts of readers. As will this story of loss and reconciliation, of storytelling and truth.

Review:

First things first: as a physical book, A Girl Made of Air is stunningly beautiful, and I am so glad I pre-ordered a hardback as a me-treat. I was immediately drawn to the book by its cover and its subject matter, and the mention of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, one of my all-time favourite books, sealed the deal.

It is hard to go wrong with a setting as rich in fictional possibilities as a circus, and A Girl Made of Air is full of the sights, sounds and stenches of behind-the-scenes circus life. Fausto’s circus has the requisite eccentric characters, exotic beasts, poky accommodation and of course, the big top, and the novel captures the peripatetic lifestyle of the circus brilliantly. What is different, and really fascinating, about this book is the way that we as readers are positioned alongside a protagonist who is on the periphery herself, an outsider amongst the outsiders, so that we tend to get sidelong glances into the action of circus life as we follow Mouse peeking out from under trailers or glimpsing her parents from afar. At first, I found this perspective slightly frustrating, as I wanted to be thrown in among the glitz and the colour, to revel in the midst of the action, but gradually I realised just how clever the author is being here: as a reader, finding myself in exactly the same position as the protagonist is such an interesting experience.

The story itself also took me by surprise, subverting my expectations. It is darker, and ironically perhaps, more ‘grounded’ than I was expecting – instead of a dazzling tale of ‘the world’s greatest funambulist’, this is a very human story about getting it wrong, about being a flawed and changeable person, making snap decisions you come to regret and acting in ways that unintentionally hurt those you care about the most. Far from being a fantastical, spangled story of wonder, Mouse’s life is beset by small disappointments and niggling uncertainty. As a protagonist, she felt very real to me, sympathetic at times, and other times frustrating and alienating, so that I wanted to shout at her, “What are you doing?” That’s when you know a character has really got under your skin.

I think that was perhaps my favourite aspect of this novel: despite the magic and the folklore woven into its narrative, it felt very true and very revealing. The characters, instead of being colourful caricatures, the bright, cartoonish circus folk of childish imagination, are damaged and desperate, broken down by human tragedy and drudgery in a way which really makes you think about the person behind the performer. I loved the touches of myth and magic, don’t get me wrong, that’s my jam, and Serendipity Wilson’s tales from the Isle of Man are wonderful, but this story offers so much more. It peels back the curtain, if you will excuse the rather obvious metaphor, and reveals the grubby truth behind the razzle dazzle.

A Girl Made of Air challenged my expectations in the best way: I was anticipating one thing, and got something even better. I was expecting a good night out at the circus, and I came away with a far deeper experience. Oh, and I have to do a shout-out to my favourite character, Cubby, whom I adored. I highly recommend this book, but you can’t have my copy, because a) it is too pretty and b) I will be rereading it soon.

A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington is published by Quercus and is available to purchase here.

6 thoughts on “Review: A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington (2020)

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