Posted in Netgalley

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.

From the cover..

The spellbinding novel from the author of the Sunday Times bestselling The Doll Factory. 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.

‘Do you like stories?’ Nell asks, and the child nods. She picks up the book of Fairy Tales, weighs it in her hand. She remembers Charlie’s wafting hands, trying to fix her, to make her ordinary. She puts it back, takes a breath. Instead, she tells Pearl about a mermaid with a blue-scaled tail. ‘Her tail was so beautiful,’ she whispers, ‘that if men caught her, they’d dry her out and place her behind a sheet of glass, and thousands of strangers would pay to see her.’ She tells her how the mermaid swam in the deep waters where nobody could find her. ‘A little like you in this wagon,’ she says. Pearl smiles, and Nell carries on, explains how a prince’s ship was blown off course and he fell in love with her. He longed for his own tail so much that he visited a witch who ripped his legs from his body and stitched on fish scales with a sharp needle’.

Those of us who loved Elizabeth MacNeal’s first book The Doll Factory have been waiting impatiently for the next novel to spring from her imagination. The wait was worth it. I am always drawn to books about circuses and freak shows – it follows on from research I did at university in my Gothic, Grotesque and Monstrous module and for my dissertation on disability. However, not all works that feature freak shows, in whatever form, have their research based in disability studies and culture. While The Greatest Showman has Hugh Jackman (swoon) and some incredible songs, it doesn’t really tackle the ethics of such an enterprise as Barnum’s. Yes, the freaks had a great song about being their authentic selves and not being hidden away, but it never tackled that deep inequality in their relationship as showman and exhibit. The act of singing This Is Me, led by the bearded lady, shows their strength and character when Barnum doesn’t allow them to attend the party with dignitaries. However, it doesn’t address the fact that they are getting paid to display themselves as different and whether or not this is a choice. MacNeal uses Barnum as the inspiration to her showman, Jasper Jupiter, but she does see the problems inherent in a concern that displays ‘other’ bodies for entertainment. She then explores the concept of difference using the circus performers, fairy tales and concepts of monstrousness. She manages to do this while writing a story that is thrilling, full of strong characters and told with such vivid description.

Our heroine, and eventual Queen of the Moon and Stars, is Nell. As Jasper Jupiter’s troupe visit the small village where her family farms violets for confectionery, he notices Nell’s wild abandon as she dances with her brother. This is an after show party for the performers, but there are locals too, enjoying the atmosphere and partaking in a lot of alcohol. Nell is usually shy, covered in birth marks head to foot, she tends to stay where she isn’t seen. However, the alcohol she tries removes all the inhibitions she usually hides behind in public. Jasper sees her as a leopard girl, covered in spots, and imagines how she would look in his circus. Eventually though, he settles on Queen of the Moon and Stars; Nellie Moon, with a skin covered in constellations. He approaches Nell’s drunkard of a father and offers him twenty pounds for her. He creates a caravan for her, beautifully decorated and with three well chosen books for her to read. Then with her father’s help, he kidnaps her, locks her in the caravan and trundles off with the rest of the circus into the night. His plan is to make her fly, constructing huge feather wings on a harness and a system of ropes and pulleys to give the impression she is soaring above the crowd. His troupe are ‘performers’ not just exhibits to be wheeled out, poked and prodded. Jasper believes that with Nellie Moon he might start to earn the sort of money that would make a trip to London viable. Maybe in a show tent in one of the pleasure gardens? Most of all he’d like to entice Queen Victoria to see his show, because she is a famous ‘freak fancier’ and what a coup it would be if Jasper’s Circus of Wonders was her first choice of entertainment since Albert died.

I loved the way the author used the books in Nell’s caravan to bring in the idea of fairy tales and how they victimise people who are different. When Nell is reading to Pearl, an albino little girl that Jasper buys, she manages some retelling worthy of Angela Carter – including The Little Mermaid quoted at the beginning of my review. Nell thinks about the book of Hans Christian Andersen tales she would read with her brother Charlie:

‘They read about Hans My Hedgehog, half-boy, half-beast; about the Maiden without Hands; about Beast and his elephant trunk and his body glittering with fish scales. It was the stories’ endings which always silenced her, that made her pull her dress over her fingers. Love altered each character – Hans shucked his hedgehog spines like a suit, the maiden’s hands grew back, Beast became a man – and Nell pored over the woodcuts so carefully, staring at those plain, healed bodies. Would her birthmarks disappear if somebody loved her?’

The thought would make her tearful even then, but she didn’t know why. Stella, the bearded lady, tells Nell that she will find her strength in performing. It’s a way of taking up space in a world that doesn’t see them. She gives voice to the dilemma at the heart of the ‘freak show’; instinctively, it feels wrong to exhibit someone for their difference, but where else would they earn so much money and live so well? Of course in reality there were horror stories and the author does name check some of them in the book. Sara Baartman, a slave from South Africa, known as The Hottentot Venus was exhibited all over the world until her death. She was then bought by naturalist George Cuvier who dissected her, then pickled her genitals and kept them in a jar. Barnum was known to treat animals appallingly, but he also exhibited a freed slave called Joice Heth after removing all her teeth! He did this so he could name her the Oldest Woman in the World. However, for every horror story there were famous ‘freaks’ such as Siamese Twins Chang and Eng who earned so much from being exhibited that they bought a plantation for themselves, and their families. It isn’t just the money though, as Stella explains:

‘There’s power in it,’ Stella says, twisting a curl of her beard around her finger. ‘In what?’ ‘Performing. You control it. How they see you. You choose to be different. Nobody else looks like me, and I’m glad […] I was a hungry gutterling, not worth a gentleman’s spit. And because of this, the source of all my powers—’ she smiles and pulls on her beard – ‘I’ve been to Vienna and Paris and Moscow, and done as I please. I’ve made enough money to make my mother turn in her grave. I could give you a thousand names of wonders whose lives are richer, bigger, brighter, because of shows like this.’

Nell can’t imagine feeling like this. She has always kept her body covered and stayed in the background. She’s used to being called ‘leopard girl’ or being asked if her mother was startled by a leopard during her confinement. She is used to being whispered about and pitied. How will she feel about her body being displayed, flying high above the audience? Being pointed at and talked about, her body on posters, matchboxes and as figurines. Yet, when she gets there, she does feel what Stella is talking about.

‘Someone throws flowers into the sky. A bouquet dips and falls. She watches these people, grown fat on wonder. They have seen a giant juggle, a bearded woman chirrup like a blackbird, a dwarf ride a miniature pony, tumblers and contortionists, fire-eaters and dancing poodles, and she is the finale. They admire her, want to be her. All her life, she has held herself like a bud, so small and tight and voiceless. She has not realised the potential that lies within her, the possibility that she might unfurl, arms thrown wide, and take up space in the world.’

I loved the stance the author takes and I loved this awakening in Nell too, but there’s so much more to the book. The luscious descriptions of costumes and performers made me feel I was there. The heat of the lights, the smell of the animals and gaudy caravans.The sounds and smells of the pleasure gardens were also really vivid, especially the morning after. The flashbacks of Jasper and his brother Toby’s time in the Crimean War were horrific and I loved the interplay of the brother’s roles as watcher and doer. The author plays with the idea that appearances never lie, through Toby’s photography, how he chooses his images and for which audience. Toby was an interesting character who never truly fits anywhere, not even in his natural place as Jasper’s brother. His difference doesn’t show, so when he tries to make his otherness visual will the other performers accept him? Jasper himself is mercurial, full of ideas and with a lot of success, but always reaching for more, to his detriment. I found his relationships to women interesting, he has no lovers and his ties with his friend Dash were the strongest he’s had with another person. He seems to see women as things to display, to possess and assert power over, but not as allies or equals. Yet, in his troupe, he has some of the strongest women you could imagine. There are some parts of the ending that were inevitable and others that were unexpected and left undone, which was perfect. I loved this book so much, I’m going to buy a very special copy of it and keep it forever.

Meet The Author


Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, was a Sunday Times bestseller, has been translated into twenty-nine languages and has been optioned for a major television series. It won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018. Circus of Wonders is her second novel.