Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, friends and neighbors, allow me to change your lives! Step inside Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show! You’ve read about them in magazines, these so-called human curiosities, this tribe of misfits—now come and see for yourselves. We’ve got a gent as tall as a tree, a lady with a beard, and don’t miss your chance to see the Wild Albinos of Bora Bora! Ask Madame Doula to peer into your future (only two dollars more if you want to know how you’re going to die).
And between these covers behold the greatest act of our display—Portia Remini, the strangest of the menagerie because she’s a ‘normal’ among the freaks, searching for a new beginning on the bally, far away from McGreavey’s Home for Wayward Girls, where Mister watches and waits. He said he would always find Portia, said she could never leave . . .
Oh, it’s not for the faint of heart folks. If you’re prone to nightmares or you’ve got a weak ticker, you’d best move on. Within these pages lies a tale of abandonment, loss, misfortune for the rich and glory for the poor (and a little murder doesn’t hurt). It’s a story for the ages, but be warned: once you enter the Wonder Show you will never be the same.
Every now and then a book comes along that is just an entirely different kind of book – and that’s exactly what Wonder Show is. This story is odd, slow, internal, fascinating, and entirely hypnotic. I had no idea where it was taking me, but I could not look away.
If you ever watched an HBO show called Carnivale, you’re going to recognize the trappings of this book – it too takes place in post-Depression, dust bowl America, and follows a rag-tag traveling circus filled with the strange and bizarre. But while Carnivale was a story writ large on the battlefield of good vs. evil, Wonder Show is a quiet, introspective, entirely personal story. Portia, our leading lady, is adrift in life, and this strange, rambling circus that she eventually falls into (and it takes a good while for her to get to that point) becomes her house of mirrors, a way of reflecting back the things she can’t quite grasp about herself, until she comes to recognize and understand them.
Now with most coming of age stories, there tends to be an external trigger - the battle to be fought, the love to be won – but this story completely ignores such conventions. Instead this is a book built on character studies, and so it meanders around and between the bizarre and fascinating characters who people the circus, slowly peeling back layers to let us get to know each and every one. This is a story about how strange and wonderful and difficult people really are – so no, this story doesn’t teem with action or dire jeopardy, which admittedly is why it seems to move slowly. This is a story that lives in gradual, tantalizing reveals, as it slowly unmasks the people behind the “freak” and “normal” labels. And Barnaby does it brilliantly.
As for the atmosphere of this book, and its sense of language – both are truly lovely. This story seems to exist in a world of its own, far outside the familiar realm of YA. Weirdly, it kind of reminded me of listening to Regina Spektor’s music – both story and music are unique and beguiling, and yet with both I found myself at times reaching for something, feeling around for a familiar hook or melody or narrative structure that just wasn’t there. It’s a fascinating quality, but it isn’t always entirely comfortable.
In the end, this book is about the strange little worlds we all live in, and the bridges we learn to build out of them. Portia is mired in hers, trapped between past and present, until the Wonder Show teaches her that her world is her own, and only she can decide how to live in it. It’s an odd and wonderful kind of story, and it’s of the kind you won’t forget.
Byrt Grade: A-/B+
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
This is a novel about growing up, the search for self identity, and learning to accept others for who they really are. I would recommend this for anyone who is looking for a different, darker, but thoughtful read.
Rather than a middle grade The Night Circus, I would compare Wonder Show as Water for Elephants for the younger set; it shows the lurid, the wondrous, and the humanity of circus “freaks.”