It’s May 1866 and Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders, full of living curiosities, comes to the coastal resort where Nell lives. Nell grows miniature flowers to sell in London and is regarded by locals as a ‘freak’ because of her prominent birthmarks. Nell’s father sells her to Jasper for £20 betraying her, giving her no choice and exerting his power and control over her. What follows is a captivating tale, full of atmospheric magic and mystery. The story is told by Nell. Jasper and Toby, Jasper’s brother.
This is a mesmerising read that immerses you in the circus world of the late nineteenth century and interweaves the narrative effortlessly with the Crimean War where Jasper serves as a soldier and Toby photographs. The sections in the war, especially at Sevastopol show the horrors of this war and are very dark with Toby in particular deeply affected by it and riddled with guilt. The colourful circus storytelling provides a stark contrast to the war although there are some similarities of the emotions felt. The quality of the writing is exceptional, you feel the characters emotions, see the sights, sounds and smells of both circus and war which comes to life before your eyes. It feels like a fantasy in places which is reinforced via references to fairytales. The characterisation is excellent, Jasper is powerful, in control, his temper can be terrible, he has a voracious appetite for success and as a consequence overreaches. Toby lives in his shadow but shows on occasions demonstrates that he has far more potential than he has self belief. Nell transforms through the circus, she’s fulfilled, she realises she has potential, the life is exhilarating and exciting and she finds strong friendship from Stella, the bearded lady, as well as Toby. There are occasions where it becomes very tense as you wonder where Jaspers ambition will go next and the story builds and builds to a crescendo where it will go one of two ways. There is so much you could comment on in this book as it contains so much from love to jealousy and hate, guilt and sadness and strong fraternal bonds. The end feels right, it touches your heart and fits the narrative.
Overall, this is a wonderful book. I love the colour of the circus, the complexity of the characters and the beauty of the writing which at times feels lyrical. It’s a fantastical tale which captivates and dazzles like the circus itself.
With thanks to NetGalley and especially to Pan McMillan, Picador for the much appreciated arc in return for an honest review.