This was my bookclub read for March/April. I nearly rejected it on the grounds of its cover, and had I been in a shop I would never have picked it up. But turning it over and reading the blurb, I thought – this could be good. And so it proved.
Jacob Jankowski is about to sit his final veterinary exams at Cornell. It is a solid career in the middle of the Depression, and Jacob has a job at his father’s practice to look forward to. But he is called from class to discover his parents have been killed – and all their savings have gone into his college education. He is bereaved and homeless. He runs, leaping onto the first freight train he finds. And thus he finds the circus, a circus in need of a vet for its animals. A real-life dirty, gritty, mixed-up circus full of mixed up people – including Jacob.
The story of Jacob’s circus life is punctuated by the nonagenarian Jacob fighting for his freedom in the care home. And railing against another man’s claim that he once carried water for elephants in a circus.
That claim is never sorted out, but I think we know it’s untrue. Ms Gruen paints finely observed portraits of both Depression-era circus life and current-era old age. The personalities are sharply defined yet easy to get involved with. Each character rings true, their motivations, their fears, the simple practicalities of everyday life when freedoms are restricted. Life is often violent and sometimes brutal. And sometimes human kindness wins through. It’s an engrossing book that I couldn’t wait to get back to.
Rich, thrilling and beautifully described, it’s one to enjoy and savour – and re-read. 5 stars, although it really does need a different cover.