by Paul Gallico
I was surprised on several fronts. Surprised at the turns the story took- nothing was as I expected, yet I could imagine all this really happening. Surprised at how well it was told, how tender and brutally realistic at the same time. Most of all, surprised at how much this book was about sexuality. Not in a sordid way (although one amazon reviewer thought so- I couldn't find opinions elsewhere online of this book- it seems pretty obscure). But, I thought, in an honest depiction. There's a young girl Rose, grown up in poverty, who comes along with the circus as companion to one of the clowns- she keeps house for him in his little caravan, and becomes enamoured of the animals in the menagerie. There's the strict moral code among the circus people- they reject her as an outsider, and assume that because of her background she's just selling herself (which is untrue). For her part, Rose accepted the old clown simply as a matter of course and a measure of comfort, but she finds herself attracted to the young horseback performer Toby. He is drawn to her even more, having never been with a girl before, but at the same time despising her because of gossip and agonizing over things he doesn't know. When (as is obviously inevitable) these two finally get together, Toby is disappointed that his first experience doesn't live up to wild expectations. More stuff happens, there's estrangement and rejection and forgiveness, and in the end Toby finds what he had been looking for- the difference between needing and using someone, and truly loving them. I think that was the most tender, delicate moment in the whole book.
It was Rose and Toby's story that touched me most, but everyone else in the novel also has their needs and desires- in different forms. Some abandon the circus to try and survive elsewhere, some make promises and fail to keep them, some turn to violence and petty revenge. Some care most for the animals, others for their own skills and opportunities, others for their family's approval and so on. They all do what they can to get what they want, but those who go out of their way to assist the others and keep their integrity really shine through the dross. One of the strangest passages in the book occurs when the old man who is caretaker for the menagerie approaches a vastly wealthy woman in the hope of some charity. The enclosed world that was her walled estate such a very different place, with its own rules and codes. There is a shocking scene near the end that suggests this woman too, had her own needs, but she forced others to meet them, able to do so with her vast power and the fear she instilled in people. I didn't know what to make of this at first. It was disturbing to say the least. What a bald contrast this selfish manipulation, to the free tenderness shared between Toby and Rose. And yet in the end I just found it hideously sad.
I've just mentioned what stood out most to me when I turned the final pages, but the novel is full of other details and characters. There's a woman-hating elephant. A beautiful, wild tiger. The complexity and frustration of dealing with laws and regulations in a foreign land, where none of them speak the language. The ins and outs of the performers, animals and property changing hands as the status of the circus changes. The difficult decisions the manager faced. The social hierarchy within the circus. How they played the crowd, work behind the scenes, attitudes towards the animals, the public, their fellow circus workers. Close on the heels of Bad Elephant, Far Stream, this was another look at circus life that says a lot about love and need, the generosity and mean-spiritedness of human nature, all hand-in-hand.
Have any of you read this book? What did you think.
Rating: 3/5 323 pages, 1962