A hostile stranger is hunting Dr. Show's ramshackle travelling circus across 1960s America. His target: the ringmaster himself. Struggling to elude the menace, Dr. Show scraps his ambitious itinerary; ticket sales plummet, and nothing but disaster looms. The troupe’s unravelling hopes fall on their latest and most promising recruit, Webern Bell, a sixteen-year-old hunchbacked midget devoted obsessively to perfecting the surreal clown performances that come to him in his dreams. But as they travel through a landscape of abandoned amusement parks and rural ghost towns, Webern’s bizarre past starts to pursue him, as well.
Along the way we meet Nepenthe, the seductive Lizard Girl; Brunhilde, a shell-shocked bearded lady; Marzipan, a world-weary chimp; a cabal of drunken, backstabbing clowns; Webern’s uncanny sisters, witchy dogcatchers who speak only in rhymes; and his childhood friend, Wags, who may or may not be imaginary, and whose motives are far more sinister than they seem.
As I read this book I found myself asking what is reality. The question is of course highly pertinent to this blog: How do we define realism, the background against which the magic is projected? The world which the author creates and in which the hero Webern finds himself is the world of the freakshow, but is that unreal? Clearly not. Throughout the first half of the book I assumed that there was an "ordinary world" beyond the circus. We glimpse it in the roadside diners and the punters filling the seats of the big top. But then in the second half of the book, the focus shifts towards Webern's family, which seemed to me weirder than the circus performers I had come to see as real and detailed personalities. Webern's Grandmother is a formidable character with one eye, who lives with a chimpanzee as a servant and hunts racoons for food under her neighbours' houses and now as she approaches death, cuts out the middle man and lies down in her coffin to die. Webern's sisters are similarly strange.
I received this book via Netgalley. One of the difficulties of using Netgalley is ascertaining whether or not the book is magic realism from the publisher's description. In the end I just have to apply for the book and see. So is it magic realism? I am still not sure. It is categorized as contemporary fantasy in Amazon, but that does not preclude it from being magic realism. So if this beautifully drawn world of the "freaks" is real, where is the magic? It may be that this is provided by the character of Webern's friend Wags. He is seen by Webern as real, but others do not see him. Is he a figment of Webern's imagination or is he something more complex than that? I will not spoil the ending of the book by elaborating further.
I really enjoyed this book and was drawn to the central character. Webern may be the archetypal unhappy clown, but his psychology is drawn in great depth. In fact I sympathized with many of Webern's circus buddies. It was maybe because of this that I had some trouble with the book's structure. It is divided into two parts and by the time you get the second part most of the characters so carefully drawn in the first are either dead or have left. It is as if one is starting a new book. I can see what the writer is trying to do, but it left me somewhat unsatisfied. There is a good reason why the traditional story structure is in three (or maybe five) parts: it works. At the end of the book I found myself wanting a part three.
This book was given to me by the publisher via Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.