Book Review: Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal jumped out at me from the “quick grab” shelf in my local Calgary Public Library. I have been reading this book while on vacation in beautiful Nova Scotia, Canada.

One of the themes in this book highlights the pain of change. Although fictional, this tale of transformation prompted me to write a book review, as it follows a character who goes through a rapid and complete transformation. This transformation requires reskilling and redefining who she is, and what she thinks she can do. Sound familiar?  We are in an age where reskilling and redefinition of who we are is crucial to stay relevant and ready to face the changes in the world of work. 

The novel is set in 1866, Victorian England, and follows 2 brothers who want to create a circus. A small circus, their fates change upon their acquisition of Nell, a young labourer from a small village with unusual birthmarks. Nell is sold by her father for 20 pounds, and is taken away from all she has ever known by force. Nell rages against her fate, but quickly realizes that her prospects in the circus far outweigh her dismal prospects in her village, where she was marked as an outcast because of her birthmarks. She gives in to her fate, and learns to fly above the circus tent as instructed by the circus master, Jupiter. Eventually, she surprises herself when turns her brother down when he comes to try to rescue her. Nell is the star, the Queen of the Moon and the Stars. She loves the accolades, the money she is earning, and the sense of belonging with other outcasts. Her liability had become her strength.

The strong female characters that are woven through the novel are inspiring. I love how Nell adapts children’s stories to focus on loving yourself the way you are, and that normal is not necessarily best. While recounting the story of the mermaid to a child, she changes the story so that the prince asks to grow a tail so he can join her in the ocean, instead of her wishing to be human.  The narrative is a mix of love story, drama, and poor girl does good, with a dash of tragedy, I would recommend this as a great summer read.

Nell’s trajectory from a motherless, poor, unwanted outcast, to circus celebrity is an interesting study. It parallels the more mundane human experience of reinvention and reskilling. The story illustrates the shift away from curiosities and freaks to automation and machine based entertainment. This shift foretells our current condition where AI is replacing many jobs, requiring people to reskill and find new skills and contributions.

Comfortable in her life, Nell believes that she will do best staying where she knows what to expect. How can Nell who is poor, starving, with no prospects for a husband, and an alcoholic father, with a loving brother who is soon leaving to start his own family, think that this is a happy life? How could she want to stay there? Josephine in HR might feel the same way, when she goes to work at a soulless job that does not value her contributions, no opportunity for engagement or advancement, lukewarm management, with no end in sight. The comfort of complacency.

When Nell is taken by Jupiter, she trashes her caravan for 3 days, destroying everything in her wake in her rage. She rails against her destiny and is terrified for an uncertain future.

We get comfortable with what we know, even if we are unhappy and unfulfilled. It takes enormous courage and conviction to take a step in a new direction. Nell did not take that step, she was forced against her will, much like Josephine might be forced when her position becomes redundant. Unlike Nell, Josephine will not be captured and forced into servitude. Her worry about her uncertain future pushes her to seek security, leading her to search for a job doing the same soul-sucking job that she just left.

How can we tap into the courage to make a change, to upskill or reskill without getting kidnapped by the circus? During times of stress, it very difficult to focus on our creativity or learning something new. Instead, it is more effective to learn a new skill, retrain or take a course to advance your knowledge while still at your current job. Employers everywhere are realizing the value of retraining current employees instead of searching for someone new.

Write your own happy story of transformation by forcing yourself to develop new skills, adopt a lifelong learning mindset, and be open to new experiences. Without the whole getting sold by your dad and getting kidnapped bit.