Book Review: Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal #CircusOfWonders #NellieMoon

Circus of Wonders


Elizabeth Macneal

1866. 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, 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 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 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?

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

Nell lives in a small coastal village in the South of England. Her life is quiet, isolated, lonely. She picks violets for a living and mostly keeps to herself because of the birthmarks which dapple her skin. Nell is unwanted and unloved by her father because of this strange appearance. Her only friend is her brother, Charlie.

When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in town, Nell’s father sells her to the ringmaster. Captured and taken far from her loving brother, Nell is thrust into a world of “freaks” and “curiosities.” But there is more to the circus than she expects, and soon she realises this might be the best thing that has ever happened to her.

Jasper’s ambition is matched only by his greed. He is cruel, coercive. And he is determined Nell will be his “masterpiece.” She will bring him acclaim, fortune and fame. She will draw the Queen’s eye to his Circus of Wonders. Toby, his brother is kindly, quiet, going about his work as photographer, and when he befriends Nell, a fragile love blooms between them.

In the beginning Nell is ostracised, bullied for the marks on her skin. Then she is stolen from her brother, flaunted and thrust into the spotlight. But this is also where Nell finds some balance, some semblance of power and, in a way, something akin to freedom. Now people no longer look at her with disgust but awe and wonder. She is Nellie Moon, a rising star. I loved her development, and seeing her grow throughout the story. I know I will never forget Nell.

Running alongside this, is a tale of two brothers, Jasper and Toby. They share a terrible secret, one which follows them wherever they travel, however far they travel. I found their strange bond fascinating, the complexity of it, the constant need for each other’s validation and approval, the darkness and jealousy which bleeds into their relationship.

The author’s prose is spellbinding, filled with power, honesty and grace. Circus of Wonders is a rumination on the lives of so-called “freaks of nature,” the damning glare of the spotlight, the price of glory and freedom, and the beauty of being different. It is about humanity, love and redemption. I just loved it! Love this author’s books and can’t wait for her next!

Out 13th May in hardback, ebook and audiobook!

To purchase your copy, you can follow the links below:


About the Author

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, was a Sunday Times bestseller, has been translated into twenty-nine languages and has been optioned for a major television series. It won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018. Circus of Wonders is her second novel.

You can catch Elizabeth (online) at all these wonderful bookshops/festivals! Link here for tickets and info!

With thanks to Camilla, Elizabeth and Picador for my ARC, which I received in exchange for an honest review!

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