Circus of Wonders

Written by Elizabeth Macneal
Review by Charlotte Wightwick

Set in the 1860s, when the craze for circuses, and particularly “human wonders”, was booming, Macneal’s second novel explores this glamorous, tawdry and exploitative world. Nell is a young woman who can never have what her brother has: a normal life. Set apart by the birthmarks which speckle her skin, she keeps to the edges of village life. But when her father sells her to a visiting circus, a new life begins with Jasper, Toby and their community of performers. Nell moves from shame at having been sold as though she were an object, to the thrills of performance and fame. Yet even her greatest moments – such as meeting Queen Victoria herself – are tinged with indignity, and her fall from prominence is as precipitous as was her rise.

Jasper and Toby have dreamed of owning a circus since they were children together. The brothers’ experiences in the Crimean War bind them even more closely, although also prove to be a fault line in their relationship. Nell’s arrival proves to be the wedge which drives them further apart. Jasper takes financial risks with their future, hoping that “Nellie Moon” will bring him fame and glory, while Jasper deals with the emotional and practical fall-out of his love for Nell. All three must grapple with the question of how far they put their personal relationships ahead of the glamour and brilliance of the circus.

Macneal’s second novel is a convincing depiction of a world which offers both great opportunity and extremes of degradation. Her main characters are all driven by conflicted loyalties, and these emotional tensions drive much of the drama. It is an enjoyable and engrossing novel, which captivates from beginning to end.