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Circus of Wonders

by Elizabeth MacNeal

I loved this book!  I was in the mood for something uplifting and transporting and this was that book. MacNeal’s fabulous, macabre first novel – The Doll Factory set in 1851 against the backdrop of the Great Exhibition in London – was a bestseller and has been translated into twenty-nine languages so I was interested to try her new one.

Set in the mid to late 1800 ‘s (in a similar time period to The Mad Women’s Ball) when freak shows were all the rage, we meet 19-year-old Nell who lives in poverty in a small coastal village, hiding from the world because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin.  When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell’s father – seizing a chance to make some money – sells her to Jasper Jupiter to be his very own leopard girl.  At first she tries to escape, 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 on her custom-made wings. 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?  

Told from Nell, Jasper and Toby’s points of view, Circus of Wonder bounces back and forward in time from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea exploring the meaning of power, of being beholden, of fame, and of contemptible human behaviour.   Undemanding escapism with a contemporary twist and a secret love affair – enjoy it!

A wondrous piece of historical fiction that deals with a shameful period during Victorian England: the mid-1800s, the height of so-called deformitomania. It’s a time when freak shows and circuses mushroomed, displaying (often cruelly) those who look differently. – _andtheplotthickens

Atmospheric Victoriana – the Guardian

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