Not since I read Susan Elisabeth Phillips Kiss an Angel did I have the pleasure to read about life in the Circus. Glamorous, set in the 1930’s – it’s a vivid picture about life during the prohibition told through the eyes of a wanderer, a runaway, a travelling soul.
When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth a second-rate travelling circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town.
Jacob, a veterinary student who almost earned his degree, is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.
Water for Elephants is illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in a world in which even love is a luxury that few can afford.
Quite simply Water for Elephants is an exceptional read and one that any reader should not miss out on. Briefly the novel is about a circus struggling to survive the Depression-era years in America, or more specifically circus life from the perspective of an ad hoc `vetinarian’ – Jacob Jankowski, who jumped on the Benzini Brothers circus train by chance, one evening.
The action in Water for Elephants is fast-paced; more than sufficient to keep the reader glued to the pages. `Pit stops’ to the action comes in the form of the story reverting back to the nursing home of the present-day, where Jacob is finding his aged infirmity almost intolerable. These respites back to present-day are brief though, and inevitably the narrative shoots back quickly to Jacob’s circus days where the action regains its breakneck speed.
Gruen has really done her `homework’ while researching for this novel. She’s created a circus world that’s wholly believable; one that you feel right in the midst of (especially when she intersperses the chapters with contemporary circus photos). Gruen tells us in the `author’s note’ at the back of the novel that she had researched extensively for Water for Elephants and it shows! So much so that you can almost smell the menagerie, and the sawdust of the circus ring.
What really makes Water for Elephants special for me though (aside from the great storyline) is the characters. Gruen has done a remarkable job of creating some truly colourful and memorable people in the pages of her novel. Uncle Al (the circus boss) and August (the animal trainer) are characters you’re going to love to hate. Marlena, Kinko the Clown aka Walter, and Camel are character’s you’re just going to love. You’re going to love the chief protagonist Jacob Jankowski too. Personally I found him more endearing in his role as the `present day’ Nonagenarian, but his struggle to fit into circus life, gain acceptance from his peers and deal with the urges of his love interest, make him a hugely engaging character.
In summing up I’d say that that Water for Elephants is one of these rare novels that will both thrill you and shock you at the same time. I really want to tell you everything about the story because it’s so good, but also I don’t want to tell you anything, because it will spoil the thrilling `ride’ you’re going to find yourself on when you read this novel. Sufficed to say that the story grips and twists almost ceaselessly on its way towards a quite thrilling climax. Miss this at your own peril!
Note: I should probably point out that the novel does contain some sexual content which could be considered for the more mature audience, so I probably wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under 15. On the other hand I may just be being a little prudish, so perhaps you may want to check out the mature content yourself before passing the book on to any juniors.
Favourite parts: Rosie the elephant. Jacob’s love story and his growing up-tale.
“I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin.”
In this part of the book, Jacob and Marlena are finally beginning a sexual relationship. For Jacob, it is a first. More importantly, he is more in love with Marlena than he has ever been with another woman. This incident creates a complication because Marlena is still married to August. However, August has hit her and in doing so, driven her away from him completely.
The secret keeping.
“With a secret like that, at some point the secret itself becomes irrelevant. The fact that you kept it does not.”
Although Rosie was an elephant and not a human, Jacob knows that she will be killed if he tells anyone that she murdered August. For Jacob, it is vital that he keeps Rosie’s secret forever. After Rosie has died, Jacob no longer keeps the secret to protect her. He keeps the secret out of habit until he finally tells it to Charlie.
The story of compassion:
“I open the orangutan’s door and set a pan of fruits, vegetables, and nuts on the floor. As I close it, her long arm reaches through the bars. She points at an orange in another pan.
‘That? You want that?’
She continues to point, blinking at me with close-set eyes. Her features are concave, her face a wide platter fringed with red hair. She’s the most outrageous and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
‘Here,’ I say, handing her the orange. ‘You can have it.’
She takes it and sets it on the floor. Then she reaches out again. After several seconds of serious misgivings, I hold out my hand. She wraps her long fingers around it, then lets go. She sits on her haunches and peels her orange.
I stare in amazement. She was thanking me.”
Least favourite parts: The old man. If I ever grow old and start turning senile, I think I would hate it. Not knowing who I am anymore, waiting for relatives to visit, the crushing loneliness…
“Age is a terrible thief. Just when you’re getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse.”
Jacob and Marlena had many happy years together, raising children and just enjoying life. Suddenly, they are older and health problems appear. Marlena is diagnosed with cancer and Jacob must watch as the love of his life suffers and then fades away. This is one of his most painful memories.
I also did not particularly enjoy the wife beating sessions and the animal abuse. I cringed when I heard how they de-toothed a lion and also the scenes where the brutal care-giver is beating the hell out of a chained animal.