I’m thrilled to be sharing my review for the Ringmaster’s Daughter by Carly Schabowski on my book review blog today – this thought provoking book is now one of my favourite book of 2020. Thank you to Bookouture for a digital review copy via NetGalley and for inviting me to join the blog tour. My thoughts about the book are my own and not influenced by the free copy (or by the author’s dogs – we also have a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel)
Circus people don’t ask who you were before, or what god you believe in… when you join the circus, you are family, whatever your past.
Paris, 1940. Twenty-year-old Michel Bonnet lives on the edge of the law, finding work where he can breaking in horses on the outskirts of the city. But when the Nazis invade, Michel takes refuge as a stowaway on a rickety train bound for the rural south. It’s a journey that will change his life forever.
The train is property of Le Cirque Neumann – a travelling circus owned by the troubled and irritable showman Werner Neumann. Neumann offers Michel a job caring for the company’s horses – a lucky break, but with an unusual condition attached. Michel must keep to himself and never speak of what he sees behind the glittering curtain of the big top.
But as Michel finds himself pulled into the strange and wondrous world of the great spectacular it becomes more difficult to keep his promise. Why does the man with the performing monkey never speak, and the sword swallower turn his face away? Who are the silent, shadowy figures who flit like moths between the wagons when the sun is down? It’s clear that Neumann is keeping his performers hidden away… but why?
And how can Michel win the love of the beautiful and exotic trapeze artist Freida – the graceful, green-eyed star of Neuman’s spectacular – when he’s been forbidden to even meet her gaze?
A heartbreaking and uplifting wartime novel– perfect for fans of Water for Elephants, The Nightingale and The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
In May 2020, during the early days of furlough, I saw this book listed on NetGalley. Both the cover image and the synopsis appealed – I enjoy ‘modern’ historical fiction having studied the twentieth century during my O level course.
The book starts in Paris, just as the Germans are marching in, in the summer of 1940 and the British are heading home via Dunkirk. Carly Schabowski sets the scene of a city in turmoil, with neighbours running away and bomb damage being repaired. We are introduced to Michel, a shy young man, who is the main character. It was only after reading the book, that I realised that this is one of very few books I’ve read recently where the main character is male and is the first male historical fiction main character (the other books were of crime or thriller genres).
Michel escapes Paris (with help from his neighbour Betrand), and ends up travelling with the Le Cirque Neumann, looking after their horses. As the synopsis states, Werner, the Ringmaster keeps his performers away from Michel. The book follows Michel as he slowly becomes trusted by Werner and we discover the history of the various performers.
This wasn’t a book about a circus for me, but a book about how dangerous it was to be living in France in 1940 if you were Jewish, Catholic, disabled, gay or had a rare genetic condition. The circus performers all had reasons to hide and heartbreaking stories to share – including the one who made himself mute so that he couldn’t tell anyone where his family had fled to.
I was entranced by the story telling and could see this book as a movie. The detailed descriptions brought the locations and the show in the Big Top to life. I realised how much I had been encouraged to care for the characters when we reached the end of the book and I was holding my breath to find out what happened next. There are many friendships and romances to discover amongst the heartbreak and betrayals.
This is a beautifully written historical fiction book, dealing with some difficult topics and sadly even in our modern times, some of the same intolerances still exist. As I said earlier in my review, this is one of my favourite books of 2020 and I will be busy recommending it.
Carly Schabowski worked as a journalist in both North Cyprus and Australia before returning to Oxford, where she studied for an MA and then a PhD in creative writing at Oxford Brookes University. Carly now teaches at Oxford Brookes University as an associate lecturer in Creative Writing for first and second-year English literature students.