Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal – Book review

Being a big fan of Elizabeth Macneal’s previous book, The Doll Factory, I couldn’t wait to read Circus of Wonders and what a treat it turned out to be! Like her previous novel, this is set in Victorian times (1866) and follows a strong young woman as she works out her place in the world.

Opening sentence: It begins with an advertisement, nailed to an oak tree.

Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders

Our story begins when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders rolls into Nell’s little flower-farming village and her awful father sells her to Jasper. You see, Nell has birth marks all over her body that make her unique or – in the eyes of her father and many others – a freak.

Jasper buys her to market as a ‘leopard girl’ but her natural charisma means she ascends higher than that, becoming Nellie Moon – Queen of the Moon and Stars.

But here – she could transform herself into anything. A fairy, a queen. A creature flying across the sky. She could make her own money, and a lot of it too, build a life glossier and bigger than any woman of her status might expect.

I enjoyed the way Nell works through her complex feelings on the situation she now finds herself in. Yes, she was sold to the circus against her will and performs as an act. On the flip side, she has never has so much positive attention, been more financially stable and finds that she actually enjoys some elements of it. But can she ever really be happy in a life she didn’t ultimately choose for herself?

The Jupiter Brothers

Alongside Nell’s tale, we learn the backstory of circus-owner Jasper and his brother Toby, a photographer who works for him. Toby is a kind and gentle soul to Jasper’s domineering, self-focused one and their relationship has ups and downs. Their biggest test comes when Toby falls for Nell, something he knows his brother will never approve of…

Circus was life, desire, amplified.

I’m a big fan of real facts scattered through novels and there are a lot of references to real life circus’ and the performers that were made famous in here. Some of the stories are so sad, you see how taken advantage of some people were and how others used it to secure a living for themselves.

Roll up, roll up!

There is a dark current thrumming through Circus of Wonders that makes it so addictive. Victorian England was obsessed with curiosities and the unknown, so this mixed with the dizzy delights of the circus is the perfect setting.

Add in a wonderfully formed cast of characters (I had a soft spot for Stella) and I was totally captivated. I really enjoyed this book; beautifully written, thoughtful and with an unexpected – but very welcome – ending. I was rooting for the lovely Nell with every turn of the page.

If Circus of Wonders sounds like it’s up your street then may I also recommend Things in Jars by Jess Kidd and The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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