Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Circus Train explores a young woman's coming of age in a 1930s traveling circus and during WWII

One expects circus-themed novels to be escapist entertainment filled with interesting characters. Parikh’s debut, a Canadian bestseller, satisfies on that score, and it also thoughtfully explores two young people’s connection and quests for belonging.

In the 1930s, Lena Papadopoulos, whose overprotective father Theo is a brilliant illusionist, spends her childhood traveling across Europe with the World of Wonders. But as a polio survivor using a wheelchair, Lena doesn’t fit in, and her self-esteem suffers.

At nine, she rescues an older Jewish boy, Alexandre, who becomes Theo’s apprentice. Alexandre and Lena become close friends, but secrets reside within both their families. As Europe grows darker, terrible circumstances force them apart and leave Lena to forge her path alone.

The circus train is the novel’s backdrop, not the starring attraction, and much about its operation goes unexplained; at times, the story feels light on descriptive details. Incorporating research into medical treatments for polio and the Theresienstadt camp’s role in Nazi propaganda, Parikh creates storytelling magic in her absorbing tale of a young woman discovering her own capabilities.

This novel is also recommended for YAs: Teens who enjoy coming-of-age journeys will be drawn to Lena’s story and the intriguing traveling-circus setting. 

Amita Parikh's The Circus Train was published by Putnam in the US this past week, and I'd written this review for Booklist's November 2022 issue.  In Canada, the novel was published by HarperCollins back in March. It's being promoted as "Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus." It was also a #1 LibraryReads pick.

I'd be interested in hearing thoughts from other historical fiction readers on this book. Re: my comments that it was light on descriptions, I also found this to be true when it came to WWII and the Holocaust; in particular, the horrors of Theresienstadt are left underexplored. The story works well as a coming-of-age story, but historical fiction readers may yearn for more details and depth.

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