City of Circles by Jess Richards

Review published on June 7, 2017.

When Danu Monk is fifteen she watches her parents die. They are victims of a virus that has resulted in five deaths, and affected many more, in the circus community which is her home. Even though she is taken in by her parents’ closest friends in the circus, and is surrounded by people who care about her, she feels utterly bereft and isolated. Just before she died, her mother entrusted Danu with a precious silver locket that holds a secret from the past and, although she is initially unable to open it, Danu wears it as a choker. She also wears her father’s leather bootlaces, tied tightly around her ankles, ensuring that she remains constantly, and painfully, aware of all that she has lost.

Prior to her parents’ deaths she had been a member of the circus’s troupe of clowns but soon afterwards she approaches Morrie, a charismatic, hunchbacked tight-rope walker, and asks him if he is prepared to teach her this skill. He is more than happy to do so and their imaginative and daring feats on the wire soon become one of the circus’s most popular acts. Morrie is in love with Danu but, as he is ten years older and she is still grieving, he puts no pressure on her to return his love. She becomes very fond of him but, because her grief has made her question whether she can either recognise, or trust, love ever again, she keeps an emotional distance from him. When the circus visits Matryoshka, the magical city of circles which was her birthplace, she discovers the name of a stranger who may hold a clue to the secret her parents kept from her. This quest for the truth is one she must follow alone and so, when the circus leaves the town, she remains behind, with the comfort of Morrie’s promise to always be there for her should she need his help (he urges her to watch for him on the ether) or eventually discover that she feels able to return his love.

This captivating story is told through the alternating voices of Danu and Morrie as they not only seek a way forward in their relationship, but also to discover a deeper meaning to their lives. Each voice is compelling and heart-breaking and I very quickly found myself wanting the trust and balance they developed in their high-wire act to be replicated in their personal relationship. However, Danu’s compelling need to discover the significance of the information contained within her mother’s locket meant that she needed to find herself before she could trust in any belief in a shared future.

The author’s exploration of grief and of a young woman’s search for herself was one of the most emotionally affecting pieces of writing I have ever read. She captured so vividly and sensitively how it is possible to feel numb and alone, even when surrounded by people who love and care for you. At one point in the story she describes fifteen words for loneliness, each depicting a different aspect of this feeling, and I found myself wondering why no other author has, in my experience, ever explored it with such clarity and pathos. Her reflections that when people die they take with them the answers to all the unasked questions which remain with the living is not a new idea, but she injected it with a particular poignancy. Her choice of Matryoshka as the name of the city of circles was central to the developing story as it soon became clear that there were stories within stories, secrets within secrets, and that getting to the heart and essence of what was important required the characters to patiently explore each and every layer as it presented itself.

I quickly found myself immersed in the enchanting world of magic, runes, tarot cards and hexes, as well as the powerfully evoked atmosphere of the circus – I could almost smell the sawdust! I loved the poetic, mystical and ethereal nature of the author’s prose and frequently found myself reflecting on the ideas and observations she introduced into the story. I think this would be a good choice for reading groups because it is such an original, wonderfully fantastic story, containing so many layers of meaning which would offer fertile ground for lively discussion.

Anyone who enjoys magical realism will be in for a treat with this thought-provoking story. I haven’t read Jess Richard’s previous two novels, Snake Ropes (short-listed for the 2012 Costa First Novel Award) and Cooking with Bones, but now feel keen to remedy this omission!

Linda Hepworth 5/4

City of Circles by Jess Richards
Sceptre 9781473656680 hbk Aug 2017

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