Thank you to Bookouture (via NetGalley) for gifting me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I’ll warn now, there may be a few spoilers, but nothing that would take away from the enjoyment of the plot.
Carly Schabowski’s debut novel is a historical romance set during the Second World War, blending the worlds of the circus and Nazi-occupied Paris in a way that is both heart-breaking and hopeful. Not only this, but it is inspired by the true story of Adolf Althoff, an Austrian circus owner who hid four members of the Jewish Danner family within his circus during World War Two.
I’m really excited by this book, and by Schabowski as an author, now I’ve read it. I enjoyed it so much: it is a story of survival that is beautifully told, with characters that are achingly real and full of surprises, set against the background of war. The world of the circus also felt magical, colourful and intriguing, particularly when this period is known in Paris as when the City of Lights went dark.
The novel follows Michel Bonnet, a young man who works with horses, who quietly lives in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. His ambition is to be like his older neighbour Bertrand,
“well-read and travelled with bottles of the finest wines always in his kitchen.”
We begin with the panic of the impending arrival of the Nazis in Paris, and Bertrand declaring to Michel that they have to get out of the city.
The two men wander into the night down train tracks out of the city, and Bertrand persuades Michel to stowaway onto the first train they see. The train turns out to be four carriages carrying Le Cirque Neumann across France, led by a German man called Werner who seems incredibly mistrustful of Michel.
For much of the novel (which is split into four parts, set across the four seasons), Werner’s attitude towards Michel is cantankerous, and there are strange comings and goings of other members of the circus. Schabowski weaves together an incredible cast of characters that all have their own stories, with Michel trying to keep to the horses, but becoming increasingly drawn into the world of the circus and becoming part of the ‘family’ it has created. As the circus finds itself in towns now occupied by Nazi soldiers, desperate to see the circus, it becomes increasingly clear what the circus really is: a form of protection for Jewish people. The writing is so immersive and the sense of fear when these encounters with soldiers arise is so potent, that it had me gripped right to the very last page.
I couldn’t write this review without mentioning the titular character: Frieda. Werner spends much of the novel keeping an eye on her, leading Michel to believe the woman he is falling in love with from afar is actually the ringmaster’s wife, not daughter. The moment this discrepancy is cleared up feels like a watershed moment, as well as being a catalyst for Michel discovering more about the secretive ringmaster and his story. Frieda herself is confident, gentle, caring and clever, dancing through the pages of the book like she does upon her trapeze within the circus tent.
Alongside Frieda, my favourite characters were perhaps Lucien, Jean-Jacques and Giordano. Jean-Jacques and Giordano are best friends and a double act within the circus, one a giant and one a dwarf, and they are the first people to discover Michel hiding in the circus train as they ride through the French countryside at night. They constantly try to champion their new friends to the rest of the circus, and look out for him and each other, in ways that are really touching and show the power of friendship. Lucien is a man who takes Michel in when he is wandering, alone, through a French village outside of Paris, and who later takes in the circus too. Ever-generous and full of life, love and wine, with a spirit unbroken by the occupation of France, I loved Lucien’s constant positive presence. I also think all three of these characters highlight the fact that this novel isn’t just a love story, it’s one about the power of human relationships in all forms.
I would definitely recommend reading this novel, and I’m so excited to see what Schabowski writes next.