Saturday, December 2, 2023

Circus of Wonders

Circus of Wonders
  Circus of Wonders
Publication Information:  Atria/Emily Bestler Books. 2022. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1982106794 / 978-1982106799

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It begins with an advertisement, nailed to an oak tree."

Favorite Quote:  "Circus has always made him believe that anything is possible. But he knows, too, that it is illusion, that life does not share its boldness, its neat stories."

The Circus of Wonders is at the same time hopeful as someone "different" finds acceptance and grows into an independent woman and incredibly dark and depressing with memories of war, a father's choice, and unbridled greed for fame and fortune.

The hopeful part first. Nell's story begins in tragedy. She has unusual birthmarks which cause her to be ostracized in her little village. Her father sells her to a travelling circus that comes through. The event is devastating. However, the circus provides a home for Nell. "You control it. How they see you." The circus is not only performers but also human "wonders" or "curiosities", each distinct in what sets them apart. In that uniqueness, Nell finds herself not so "different." Interestingly, the book has some descriptions. However, I cannot actually envision what Nell looks like or what markings would deem her so unacceptable to society and a circus "wonder". Nevertheless, Nell's journey of finding growth, independence, and friendship is a positive one.

Now the dark and depressing part. Although a circus can be envisioned as colorful, vibrant, and full of life, the feel of this circus is dark, somber, and almost oppressive. That is primarily due to the other main characters of the book - brothers Jasper and Toby. "Toby was a spectator who was content to observe life from the fringes, rarely to involve himself. Jasper was curious, preoccupied with finding the trick behind every object, dismantling illusion to see the real bones of the world." Their relationship is incredibly close and bonded but reads as though in not a positive way. It is, in fact, somewhat disturbing. Jasper is the visible leader. Toby follows, out of love, out of guilt, out of some other emotion. Throughout the book, the story of the circus is accompanied by memories of war - killing, looting, and documenting it all in photographs.

That past is ultimately connected to the present in a reveal, but, by that point, it is no longer a huge reveal. The bigger issue with that story line is that it does not connect directly to Nell's story. It impacts the relationships, but the two continue almost in parallel. As such, the story of the war means having to repeatedly step away from Nell's story. It makes it challenging to stay engaged.

As with The Doll Factory, this book is dark and a very slow read. The parallels between the two books continue with closely bonded siblings, birth anomalies, collectors of oddities, and the dark Victorian gothic setup. This book is very much character driven. However, other than Nell, is there growth in the characters? Is there enough to keep a reader engaged and invested in their story. Unfortunately, this reader does not find that.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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