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.
Firstly, I want to say a huge thank you to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for sending me a beautiful ARC of this book. I was a huge fan of The Doll Factory, which I read last year, and as soon as I heard that not only did Elizabeth Macneal have a new book coming out, but also that it is set in a circus, I was desperate to read it! Circus settings are my very favourite, from Nydia Hetherington’s wonderful A Girl Made of Air, another one of my top reads last year, to Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus, one of my all-time favourite books. I am so grateful for the chance to have had an early read of this novel – it is honestly a privilege I will never take for granted.
I am going to speak plainly: I LOVED this book. It was everything I wanted it to be and more: a dazzling, intricate, powerful story that takes you deep inside another time and place. Circus of Wonders is exactly the sort of historical fiction I enjoy the most; it transports you to another time while keeping you firmly in the moment, hurling you into the midst of the action so that you feel like you are right there. I absolutely adored the plot: entering the circus alongside Nell allows the reader to experience it for the first time as she does, and the sections set in the Crimean War were both a contrast and a parallel to circus life. The conflation of the circus and the arena of war is so interesting: the images Macneal paints of spectators looking down on the battlefields and munching on their posh picnics, applauding the victors and gasping at their skill, are just genius. Like The Doll Factory, which interrogated the idea of art, this novel manages to bring in huge, powerful themes about spectacle and exploitation while also remaining immediate and gripping.
Elizabeth Macneal excels at creating complex, three-dimensional characters, avoiding any clichés with her protagonists. The relationship between Jasper, the circus owner, and his brother Toby is absolutely central to the novel, and this works really well, as it gives Nell more space. She isn’t defined in terms of her relationships to the two men – her story is linked with theirs, but not inextricably. Nell herself is a wonderful creation: the journey she goes on as the story progresses is fascinating and complicated, and the power her skill and fame gives her counteracts the moments of victimhood she experiences. Jasper could so easily have been painted as pure villain, but he, too, is nuanced in his motivations and intentions. Even less prominent characters such as Stella, the bearded lady, are fully realised and carefully drawn. The book pulses with the lives of its inhabitants.
The writing style in Circus of Wonders is perfectly pitched. It is the sort of unshowy, focused prose that immerses the reader in sensory detail and surges forward with the power of the story. It is only when you pause and reread a line here and there that the beauty of Macneal’s writing comes to the fore. This is expert storytelling, even better than The Doll Factory, and it makes me so excited for the future of this incredibly talented writer. I know this novel is going to be a massive hit, and it is one I will definitely return to as well. The characters I met in this book will stay with me for a long time.
Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal will be published by Picador on 13th May and is available to preorder here.