|The Ringmaster's Daughter by Carly Schabowski|
The Ringmaster's Daughter by Carly Schabowski
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.
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It was the rich descriptions that stood out for me from the beginning of this book, drawing me in and never loosening their grip.
We meet Michel in Paris, just as the Germans are closing in on the city. Young, vulnerable and alone, he hadn’t seemed to grasp the severity of the situation and it is his neighbour, Bertrand, who insists he leave. They join the throngs of Parisians heading for crowded stations, full of people and possessions, empty of trains. A tip off from a friend of Bertrand sees the men walking the track and waiting for a slow train to jump onto. The train is owned by a circus troupe, run by Werner Neumann, who reluctantly agrees to let Michel stay and work with the horses.
This curious group of circus performers travel around France, moving from village to village, sometimes receiving a warm welcome, they burst into life and put on a show to entertain and distract the locals from the difficult times. Sometimes they find German soldiers, their camp is searched, papers are demanded, some of them disappear, they move on quickly. It is a lonely life for Michel, Werner is hard on him, and his friendly conversations, an attempt to get to know his new companions, are met with silence and stony stares. He fears he will never fit in, but he has food, somewhere to sleep and nowhere else to go. He is also drawn to trapeze artist, Freida, fiercely protected by Werner, but just watching her from a distance is enough to keep him from leaving.
Who are these misfits who together have found themselves a family? It was a dangerous time to be different and many of them had emotional and heart-breaking stories from their pasts, but together they had found friendship, loyalty and trust. As Michel earns their trust, we learn their stories.
This is a beautifully written novel with shadowy characters and hidden pasts, contrasted with the sparkle of the circus and intense love, all set against the backdrop of The Occupation. If you enjoy historical fiction that transports you to a different time, add this one to your summer reading pile.
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.