Books & Literature

Book Review: Circus of Wonders, by Elizabeth Macneal

HISTORICAL FICTION: A novel with a vivid, brilliant cast of characters and themes of creativity and ownership, beauty and power, success and crashing failure, and the Victorian obsession with spectacle.

A Wonder-ful read.

Circus of Wonders is the second novel from award-winning and best-selling author Elizabeth Macneal. Set in England circa 1865, Nell lives a solitary, staid, and quiet life in a small coastal village. Living with her dad and brother, she picks and sugar-coats violets to make a living. However, the arrival of Jasper Jupiter, his Circus of Wonders, and his brother Toby, into Nell’s village soon changes all that. 

The story begins with a huge betrayal, which sees her father, who is controlling and desperate to make money, sell Nell to Jasper Jupiter for a pitiful sum. Nell is soon transformed from ‘Nell’ into ‘Nellie Moon’, the new star of Jasper’s show. Toby is spellbound by Nell and, as her star soars, they fall in love. Soon, however, Toby must decide where his loyalty really lies and Nell must decide who will tell her story. 

Elizabeth Macneal slowly develops the main characters, which allows the reader to connect to them on a deeper level. For example, we keep pace with the central character of Nell, who we learn upon first meeting her is uncomfortable with the stares she attracts due to her unusual birthmarks. However, after a painful start (her father’s betrayal), she soon embraces circus life and her differences. We continue to follow her as she grows in confidence and eventually embraces the attention she gains as she is transformed into ‘Nellie Moon’. 

Macneal also artfully weaves the themes of love, family, betrayal, independence, diversity, and self-acceptance throughout the story. Whether this is family love, seen between Jasper and his brother Toby, the love between Toby and Nell, or the love that Nell finds for herself and her physical differences, love is a central idea.

Macneal draws parallels in the stories of Jasper and Nell. Both have felt like outsiders and both are trying to create their own life, Jasper as the ringleader and Nell as a performer. Macneal also uses symbolism to highlight the opposites in Jasper and Nell’s stories. For example, the circus itself eventually becomes constricting and exerts its control over Jasper, while for Nell, it has always been a source of freedom and release.

Through a masterful use of description, Macneal makes the reader feel as though they are sitting ringside at the circus, excitingly awaiting the show. You can smell the fresh hay and sawdust on the floors, the scents of the exotic animals waiting to take the ring and see the gleam and glitter of the performers’ costumes in your mind’s eye. 

Circus of Wonders is, at its heart, a story about a woman regaining her power and choosing her own path. Although it starts as a slow burn, the story builds and is overall a fantastic read. This novel will appeal to readers of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants or those who enjoy historical fiction.

Reviewed by Daniella Feltrin
Twitter: @FeltrinDaniella 

Distributed by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: 11 May 2021 
RRP: $32.99

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