When we initially think of the circus it’s all too easy to think of the spectacle and bright lights for it is a show after all. And when I first stumbled across the book Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal it was too easy to glimpse at it and get excited about the escape and potential magical realism that exists within the pages. However, it is something far more than this.
Elizabeth Macneal was born in Edinburgh and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA in 2017 where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship.
It’s 1866 and 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 (she is oft refereed to as ‘Leopard Girl), 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 sold by her father and kidnapped by Jasper consequently. 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 gives her a sense of community with those that also have unique features, and allows her to shine in her best light.
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? And is it possible that the showman that feels like he was solely responsible for this eighth wonder starts to feel he is coming second to Nell? And as she falls in love with Toby, is there a possibility for happiness, a husband and home as all is revealed concerned the bind between Jasper and Toby as brothers?
Capturing the heart of the circus and the empathetic tones of being a performer, a ‘circus freak,’ a wonder in this world that’s not often taken seriously or considered in this manner, MacNeal is adept at making us feel like we too are in the background behind-the-scenes world of Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders through her narrative and literary prose.
Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is a rather astonishing story immersed with drama and coercion. It’s a beguiling tale about power and ownership, exploitation, fame and the threat of invisibility.
Circus of Wonders is available now, published by Picador