I’ve recently read two novels with circus themes that I think lovers of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus would enjoy.
The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was our book club selection this month, and it was incredibly polarizing. On one side, you have those like me, who absolutely loved it, and you have those who really didn’t think much of it at all. I thought it was an incredibly lovely book. The language was lush and poetic, the setting well-structured and highly visible in the reader’s mind’s eye. It is the story of two women in a drowned, post-apocalyptic landscape. One girl travels with a floating circus, her act involving a trained, dancing bear who is also her dearest friend. The other conducts funeral rites on her lonely island wreathed in mist and surrounded by floating bird cages.
There are many story-lines happening in this novel. Perhaps the author was a little over-ambitious in such a short novel, for there are questions that were not answered to their fullest and loose ends that could have used tighter tying. Despite its minor failings, I thought the novel was so enjoyable that I couldn’t put it down. I loved North, the bear girl, especially. She is courageous and strong. Her circus, the ship Excalibur and its flotilla of coracles, sounds like a rough but adventurous life. I found myself drawn to this watery world, where trees are so rare it’s a crime (or even blasphemous) to harm them in any way. It is only vaguely fantastic, so it will appeal to readers who ordinarily stay away from fantasy stories.
The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler was another incredible circus book (how I ended up reading two almost in a row, I don’t know). In this novel, narrator Simon Watson is a librarian who lives by himself in his ancestral home on the harsh coast of the Northeastern United States. The house, due to erosion, is so near the cliff’s edge that it threatens daily to go over, but that is the least of his problems. His parents are dead, and his sister is the fortune-teller in a traveling circus. Simon one day receives a book in the mail from someone he has never met–a book that shows a frightening trend in his family’s women’s tendency to drown on a particular day of the year. The women in his family are side-show “mermaids” who can hold their breath for impossibly long periods of time; Simon and his sister both possess this ability as well. The drownings lead Simon to believe that perhaps there is a curse on his family, and his sister seems to have arrived at home just in time for her own drowning, unless Simon can do something about it.
I apologize if I made this sound like a thriller. It is thrilling, but it is so much more than that. It is, in part, a beautiful homage to the written word. Simon and several other characters adore rare and antiquarian books, and it is a feeling with which many of the novel’s readers will feel kinship. It is also, in part, historical fiction, as the narration flips back and forth between first-person in the present day with Simon, and third-person following a mute circus “Wild Boy”-turned-seer in the late 18th Century. Swyler’s prose is eloquent, and her plot is so exciting that I didn’t want to put this book down. One thing I enjoyed in particular was being witness to the origin story of several of the antique relics that Simon comes across in his search for truth–an old theatrical curtain, mysterious portraits of unknown persons, and a crumbling deck of tarot cards that his sister obsesses over.
Though the supernatural is only hinted at and never quite makes a verifiable appearance, it adds enough of an air of mystery and intrigue to hook its readers. Are Simon and his family descended from an Eastern-European water spirit? Is there truly a curse, or are the family merely victims of truly bad luck? Is it wishful thinking, or does Simon truly hear his mother’s ghost in the water? What’s up with the horseshoe crabs?
These books are must-reads for lovers of somber, beautiful prose; sorrowful, nostalgic stories; ethereal setting; and the draw of a carnival atmosphere providing a light in the darkness.