Review: Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Set in a spectacular circus in the pleasure gardens of Victorian London, this is an addictive novel about power, fame, and a love that is threatened by a terrible secret.

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell lives set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin.

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 what happens when her fame eclipses Jasper’s own? 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?

Set in a time when Britain was obsessed with ‘freaks’ – anyone shunned due to being different than societal standards – Circus of Wonders illuminates this period through the tale of a girl sold by her father to a showman’s circus, who with his sidekick brother, take the troupe to London to gain fame, fortune and the favour of Queen Victoria.

I want to write from the offset that I don’t believe I have ever struggled to write a review quite like this before, at least for some time. I’ve really struggled to find words to convey all my feelings and thoughts on this book. 

Circus of Wonders has excellent characterisation. Truly outstanding characters. The story unfolds through the alternating perspectives of brothers Jasper and Toby, and the girl sold to the circus, Nell. Each of the three are explored enough for their feelings, intentions and decisions to be clearly understood and even felt at times. Nell is someone who discovers she can be more than what she was told she could be. Jasper is someone who learns the price of ambition and arrogance. Toby is someone who acts on love for better or worse. They are real, true and encompass the best and worst of human nature. I wanted to hug Toby, throttle Jasper and elevate Nell’s spirit. 

I think Macneal has cleverly portrayed a balanced story that illuminates a time both horrific and wondrous. I feel like I’ve seen the world in a new light, or more aptly, in a past time. It’s uncomfortable and somber yet tender, charming and hopeful. Moreover, I adored the book’s subtlety and understated air all because of Macneal’s easy prose. It’s truly special how there’s so much substance and emotion interwoven in such a readable book. I particularly enjoyed how Macneal reflected on how those who’s physique differs from what is held to be beautiful, is vilified. 

”Girls are rewarded with kingdoms; deformities are given as punishments. The greedy hunchback is cursed with a second hump on the front of his chest; a spiteful sister is punished by being given a second nose.”

As well as shining a light on how differences are dehumanised and ostracised, there’s many strands worth applauding. Family, love, identity, exploitation and what makes truth the truth ajar from stories told. 

The setting and events of Circus of Wonders are like nothing I’ve ever read/experienced. It was almost dreamlike in that it was easily conjured but just out of reach. The imagery was extremely impressive. I effortlessly pictured the hot air balloon, dancing poodles, the showman riding in on his elephant and the skin of a living picture. 

The pace was a little slow burn, which may feel tiresome at points, but is ultimately necessary for a rewarding story that completely ensnared me by the climax. I was holding my breath, my heart was galloping and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Profound, alluring and unforgettable. I have no doubt this will be in my top reads of 2021. I’ve already preordered my hardback copy – I recommend everyone else do so too!

Thank you kindly to the publishers and Netgalley for providing me with an e-ARC in exchange for this honest review

Buy It Now


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