Book Reviews

Thoughts On: Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal | Review | Analysis

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal


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?

Book Stats

Format: ebook
Length: 304 pages
Published: 2021
Publisher: Picador
Source: NetGalley


Content warnings: PTSD, animal death, death


I received a free copy of this title in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinions. 

Circus of Wonders is an historical fiction novel set in the 1860s. This was the late Victorian period, the time when modern technology was just beginning to be invented, and the recently widowed Queen Victoria had shut herself away from the public glare. One of the central characters in the book is a photographer, and this was a recent invention at the time. Macneal talks in the book about the pictures that photographers took during the Crimean War, and how the government of the timed used them to peddle a fiction about the war which just wasn’t true. The soldiers weren’t having the time of their lives, they were dying and living in terrible conditions. 

This idea of fiction vs reality is a theme that Macneal repeatedly addresses in Circus of Wonders. When Nell joins the circus, deciding to willingly follow the path that her father has forced upon her, she learns that, as Jasper Jupiter says, “It isn’t the show that counts, but the story you spin.”

Nell has markings on her skin that mark her as different to the other villagers she lives amongst. In this small community they make her undesirable, and in a way feared. Yet once she is up on stage, and the story spun about her is different, she is treated as someone special and, in a way, admired. She is treated as a celebrity of her day. Jasper sells figurines of her, and the queen invites her to the palace. As Nell acknowledges within the narrative, the marks on her skin have given her opportunities in life to see and do things she wouldn’t have had if she stayed in her small village. She would only have been ridiculed, feared, and lived a life alone in her brother’s shadow. 

Macneal tells Circus of Wonders in third person present tense, which is an unusual tense for a novel. The story is so immersive though, that I barely noticed. We get three points of view: Nell’s, Jasper’s, and his brother Toby’s. All three are compelling. With some books, when there are multiple points of view, I find I favour one over another. But I didn’t find that here. All three characters had their own stories. They all had their own unique perspective on events that kept me reading and wanting to know what happened next. 

Jasper, as the showman, wishes to be the centre of the show, the famous one. He dreams of crowds screaming his name, and he tries to sell merchandise with his own name and face on it. He is a jealous, ambitious man, and reading from his perspective was an interesting experience. Like the other characters in the novel, he’s complex, because as a reader I can understand his ambition. Who doesn’t wish to be the best at what they do?

In some ways, I think we all dream of that. But his ambition goes too far, spills over into an inability to see others succeed. And this ties into another minor theme in the book. Capitalism, and how in this time period, it was beginning to really flourish. As Macneal mentions several times throughout the story, everyone is buying and selling, everyone is trying to make their name, and make their fortune. This is especially true once the narrative has moved to London part way through the book. 

Toby, for me, is the most interesting character in the book, because I think he is the most unusual. He’s quite a sad character, in that he carries a secret, something that happened during the war of which he is ashamed. He is very loyal to his brother, though we can clearly see that Jasper doesn’t always deserve that loyalty. Jasper treats Toby appallingly at various points throughout the narrative, and I found myself wanting to feel frustrated at him for not standing up for himself. But because we read from his point of view, we see the trauma he lives with, we feel the struggles he has within himself, the poor way he views himself. I simply felt immensely sad that he felt the way he did. I wanted him to see himself as a better person.

Of all the characters in the book, Toby feels the most real. This is because it’s hard to change when you have extremely low self-esteem (and potentially PTSD), it’s not always as easy as fictional stories sometimes portray. We don’t in real life always learn a lesson through some events and see ourselves as different people. It can take a lot of inner work to change something like that, and for some people it never changes. 

Both Toby and Jasper’s perspectives include flashbacks to their time as members of the army in the Crimean War. Toby uses his photographic skills to take propaganda pictures of the war. Jasper is a soldier, along with his enigmatic friend Dash who forms the mystery of the novel. Throughout the narrative, Macneal asks question of what happened to Dash, and what his connection to the secret Toby and Jasper are guarding is.. In including the war in Circus of Wonders, it feels like Macneal is drawing a connection between the idea of war and the idea of the circus. Both are about stories, about spinning a story and representing reality in a certain way. Fiction versus reality. 

Circus of Wonders does have some metafictional elements. I think Toby, and Toby’s relationship with Nell, are where those elements are strongest. Macneal references fairy tales and books like Frankenstein throughout the narrative, which of course would be a contemporary story in this period. These references to external stories tie into the idea of Toby representing reality. It feels like Macneal is comparing Toby and Nell’s lives to the fairy tales and fictional stories she’s referencing, in a way saying that life isn’t a story. Again, fiction versus reality. 

Macneal writes beautifully in Circus of Wonders. She creates a compelling atmosphere that heightens the tension of the story and really immerses you in the action. I didn’t find the language to be overbearing, or overly descriptive. But she does write in a slightly poetic, lyrical way. For me, Circus of Wonders does sit on the border of literary fiction because of the use of language, though it does have a defined plot.

It actually reminds me a bit of Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dilsworth, which I read and reviewed a few weeks ago. They both have a Victorian setting focusing on the idea of spectacle in that period. Though Theatre of Marvels is about a black woman being used as a spectacle, whereas this is about disability and medical conditions. Different context, but a similar idea. I definitely enjoyed Circus of Wonders a lot, and I will be adding her earlier book, The Doll House, to be my TBR. 

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