Hello humans! After all these years, you would think I’d be utterly fed up with books set in circus/travelling shows. After Caraval, The Night Circus, Daughter of the Burning City and so many more I should be avoiding books like these like the plague. But I can’t help it! Something in me just can’t get enough of this setting, the idea of spectacles at night. When I had the chance to read Julie Mayhew’s The Electrical Venus I didn’t even hesitate. How did it shape up?
In a lowly side-show fair in eighteenth-century England, teenager Mim is struggling to find her worth as an act. Not white, but not black enough to be truly exotic, her pet parrot who speaks four languages is a bigger draw than her. But Alex, the one-armed boxer boy, sees her differently. And she, too, feels newly interested in him.
But then Dr Fox arrives with his scientific kit for producing ‘electrickery’ – feats of electrical magic these bawdy audiences have never seen before. To complete his act, Fox chooses Mim to play the ‘Electrical Venus’. Her popularity – and the electric-shocking kisses she can provide for a penny – mean takings are up, slop is off the menu and this spark between her and Fox must surely be love.
But is this starring role her true worth, or is love worth more than a penny for an electrifying kiss?
An intoxicating and atmospheric coming of age story set in the filth and thrill of a travelling show during the height of the Georgian Enlightenment.
It’s always a bit of an uncomfortable moment when white authors are writing about the experiences of people of colour or people with disabilities, and this story has both. However, having read Mayhew’s acknowledgements I do think this book was well researched and that Mayhew listened to the people she consulted. I’ll be on the lookout for reviews from bloggers with disabilities and bloggers of colour to see what they think, but for my part, I think this was a good way of approaching this story.
The story is told through what I can only describe as ‘streams of consciousness’ from two of the characters, Mim and Alex. Sometimes they are talking to animals, sometimes just to themselves, it would seem. I liked this approach as it gives you a snapshot of their emotions in the moment. It gives the story a sense of immediacy and intimacy, you feel with the characters in that moment, often with them reflecting on quite complex emotions. It helped keep the story interesting and allowed for jumps in time without feeling like you’re missing key information. It also makes it twice as painful when you can see something terrible on the horizon for these characters and they haven’t realised. Dramatic irony, it can be the most wonderful and terrible thing.
The setting for this book ties in nicely with the plot, and it’s really that combination that makes this a great book. Something in it reminded me of The Anatomist’s Dream in that it’s a little bit abstract, there’s something not quite real about the entire thing, even though this isn’t a fantasy novel. It’s not a gritty reality, though it also isn’t sunshine and rainbows. There are a few moments where I felt like the concept was carrying the story as opposed to the writing itself, which isn’t ideal but often happens in books such as these.
This is a great example of a historical fiction novel that not only immerses you in an aspect of another time but also makes characters you would have loved to have met. By the end of this book not only did I want to go out and play with electricity (with parental supervision or something I suppose) but I also wanted to go and find Mim and Alex and give them an enormous hug. The strongest element in this book is most certainly the two main characters and their development from start to finish.
Should you read this? If you like quirky historical fiction with a hefty dose of romance in an interesting setting I think you will enjoy this book. As someone who doesn’t read a huge amount of historical fiction (though my list of books is ever growing), I definitely enjoyed this one.
My rating: 4/5 stars.
I received a digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
What say you? What other historical fiction should I read? Let me know in the comments below!