This week, I’m excited to share my thoughts on a little hidden gem of a book which I picked up, on a whim, ages ago. It’s languished on my shelves for at least a year, maybe longer, probably thinking I’d never get around to reading it, but I proved it wrong in recent weeks. I’m now sorry that I didn’t read it sooner, because it might have lifted my spirits – this year, you see, I have read a lot of books which sounded great, but which ended up being a disappointment.
This one was sort of the opposite. I wasn’t convinced it would be up to much, and it surprised me in a good way.
I was, I have to admit, captivated by the back cover blurb of this book. ‘Laughter,’ it tells us, ‘can be dangerous.’ Then, it goes on to talk about an orphan named Miles Wednesday, and the fact that a strange circus has come to his town, and I was hook, line and sinkered. I can’t resist books about circuses, and I have a soft spot for literary orphans, too. Jon Berkeley (incidentally, an Irishman) writes beautifully, with a great turn of phrase, wonderful dialogue, funny set-pieces, smatterings of Irish-language words (none of which impede understanding for non-Irish speakers, so don’t worry), and has created some fantastic characters in his sparky, courageous Miles and his noble, gentle Little.
We meet Miles early in the book, learning that he lives in a tub under a tree just outside the town of Larde. He was abandoned on the doorstep of the Pinchbucket Orphanage as a baby, and has run away because of the severe ill-treatment meted out on the children. Now, at the age of eleven, he lives alone and makes his own decisions – as he puts it himself. In the first chapter he is visited by a talking tiger who tells him he has ‘the circus in him,’ which baffles and mystifies him. As a result of this strange encounter, he resolves to get inside the unnerving Circus Oscuro, newly arrived in town, in order to find this tiger again and find out more about himself. What he discovers there, however, is far from the answers he sought. He meets a mysterious little girl – aptly named Little – who is able to fly, and a terrifying beast simply called The Null because nobody knows what it is.
Little tells him she is being held captive, and that her friend Silverpoint has also been kidnapped by the owners of the Circus. However, he has been taken far away, and Little doesn’t know how to get him back. So, their quest begins – and, even though it all takes place in one country, and probably not over a huge geographical spread, it takes in the whole world, and more.
One thing I will say about this book is that it’s long. In my opinion, it doesn’t need to be. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the writing, and the lushness of the word-pictures, and the humour of the characters, and the sparkling dialogue, but at over 400 pages it could have done with a fuller edit, I think. There are whole chapters which could have, if I’m being brutal, been removed without really affecting the story (I’m thinking particularly of a chapter wherein Miles meets an elderly man named Baltinglass of Araby, and almost gets roped into helping him clear his orchard), or which could have been shortened, at the very least. There’s also a particular sentence structure which is used to open every single chapter – and, sometimes, to start paragraphs within chapters – which is cute and appealing the first ten times you read it, but after that it begins to grate a little.
But that’s just me being nit-picky, really.
This book has it all. There’s an elderly lady who loves children, the widow of an eccentric inventor who died in a freak pudding explosion; there’s the aforementioned Baltinglass of Araby, another slightly odd elderly character who is great fun to read. There’s gang ‘warfare’ (in the form of an excitingly described game of ‘Pigball’, which again is a bit too long but is very interesting), and there’s a character who can talk to animals. There’s a journey. There are trains. There’s a wonderful meditation on the value of love and laughter and happiness, and there is mention of the interconnectedness of all life, the importance of everything having a true name and the power of a person’s true name. There’s a brave young boy and an even braver young girl; there is the power of love between a young boy and his treasured teddy, the only thing he has managed to keep by his side all his life, and through which he has channelled all the love he should have been able to give his absent parents. There is awesome power, and nefarious criminals, and a cleverly evil plot. There are bumbling policemen.
There are wonderful illustrations.
There’s a talking tiger. I mean, what more could you possibly want? There’s a lot going on, and a complex plot, but it’s never too much for a reader (even a silly adult) to understand. There are no coincidences, and everything is logical, and the world never breaks its own rules. That, to me, is really important.
Most importantly of all, there is a wonderful ending which wraps up this story almost completely – yet, I’ve discovered since I read it, this book is part one of a trilogy. I have no idea how Jon Berkeley’s work passed me by – this book was first published in 2007, in my paperback edition – but I will be seeking out the sequels to Miles Wednesday’s story, and I will read them with great joy.
One of the best books I’ve read this year, I think. Heartily recommended.