Elizabeth Macneal has written a superb historical fiction novel that is full of drama and adventure. Set against the Victorian obsession with oddities, freaks, and wonders, many captivating story threads bring us mystery, intrigue, and the enthralling draw of circus life and performance. Nell is a young woman living in a southern English coastal town with her brother and father. She was born with birthmarks across her body which received her the nickname ‘Leopard Girl’ and ensures her life is one of loneliness, ridicule and ostracization. Her only comfort comes from her brother while her father considers her to be a curse.
“It begins with an advertisement, nailed to an oak tree. ‘Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders!’ someone shouts. ‘What is it?’ ‘The greatest show on earth!’ “
When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders comes calling on their village, Nell’s father takes the opportunity of selling her to the circus for twenty pounds. Jasper owns and runs the travelling circus and his brother plays a supporting role without feeling ownership or authority. The relationship between Jasper and his brother Toby is quite complex and while there is a bond of family duty there are destructive tones of jealousy, manipulation, dominance, threats of abandonment, ridicule and retribution. The acute feelings of jealousy that are exposed from their childhood through the Crimean War, where Jasper was a soldier and Toby a war photographer, to their involvement in the circus, is never too far away and always bubbling under the surface. During their time in the war, they met a charismatic friend, Dash, who enthralled Jasper with his plans for a circus, but he disliked Toby and described him as a ‘dullard’ – probably very accurate. These relationships were to end in tragedy and a secret that Jasper and Toby maintained, although a price is exacted for the silence and the truth of how Dash died.
Initially distraught with her sale to the circus, Nell finds herself amongst other people considered freaks but develops a belonging and a place where she can learn to celebrate her uniqueness. Along with the bearded lady, the tall, the strong and the small, she joins her surrogate family. Jasper eventually makes her a star and the undertone of jealousy finds another outlet and the three-way relationship between Nell, Jasper and Toby becomes more complicated where desire and attraction are not equally or noticeable applied.
The full cast of characters is wonderfully developed with their mix of flawed and admirable traits. The relationships they form and the motives, duties, and concern they have is fascinating as events unfold that regularly challenge their lives. Circus of Wonders is a beautifully written novel with incredible depth and an engrossing storyline. It provides an authentic atmosphere with many of the Victorian views on power, ownership, society and exploitation on display.
I would highly recommend this book and I reckon Circus of Wonders is set to be an outstanding best-seller for 2021. I would also like to thank Picador, Pan Macmillan, and NetGalley to provide me with a free ARC copy in return for an honest review.