Wednesday 28 September 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Circus of Wonders, Elizabeth Macneal (2021)

Welcome back to my blog and to my Neo-Victorian Voices series, in which I review books set in the nineteenth century but written in the twenty-first. Nearly three years ago I blogged about Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, The Doll Factory (2019). Today, I’m reviewing her second novel, Circus of Wonders, which was published in 2021.

Circus of Wonders tells the story of Nell, a teenage girl covered in birthmarks, who works picking flowers in a small English village in the 1860s. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders comes to town, she, initially unwillingly, leaves her old life behind to become a “wonder” in the troop.

The novel moves between the point of views of Nell, circus owner Jasper Jupiter, and his brother, Toby. And there’s also a cast of secondary, but colorful, characters, many of them “wonders” like Nell. Jasper and Toby share secrets from their time in the Crimean War, which threaten to undo them today, while a key backer of Jupiter’s venture, known as the “jackal,” is in hot pursuit of a return on his investment.

As in The Doll Factory, the setting and subject matter are dark—perfect for fans of moody Victoriana. There’s even a cameo appearance by Queen Victoria herself, who was known to take an interest in human “wonders.” Complex sibling relationships and obsessive romantic attractions are also common themes between the two novels. 

Macneal does a great job building multi-faceted characters and ratcheting up tension. And the denouement of the novel (during a performance at the circus, of course!) is surprising, yet satisfying. My one small quibble was that the revelation of the big secret from the brothers’ time in Crimea was delayed a little too long, straining my belief in their viewpoints.

The Doll Factory and Circus of Wonders feel like they belong to a nineteenth century that’s recognizable and well-researched, yet uniquely Macneal’s own. I look forward to reading what she does next to build out this Gothic universe.

Which historical novel should I review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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