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A Review of Hannah Barnaby's Wonder Show

posted May 7, 2014, 8:42 AM by Timothy Vienne   [ updated May 7, 2014, 8:45 AM ]
I had the privilege of meeting Hannah at Charlottesville's Festival of the Book, a gathering of book nerds, writers and indy publishers in Central Virginia. What initially caught my interest in this book was the unusual premise for a young adult novel: a girl who runs away to join a circus in the 1930s Depression-era Midwest. In a genre saturated by vampires, it seemed like an original path forward. First, I should give a spoiler alert. I will discuss the ending, so please read the book before this review if losing that level of suspense bothers you. (It would for me, at any rate).

This book excels at creating a many-dimensioned protagonist, Portia Remini, who is a fifteen-year old smart-mouthed Gypsy orphan. Barnaby explores Portia's longing for her father, a mythical character whom she has not seen since the age of five. This central conflict defines the novel from beginning to end: in the beginning, her father leaves, while by the end, she lays his memory to rest. The tone of the work strikes me as a tragedy, but the ending communicates more of a comedy. 

So much for literary tropes. What I thought was enchanting about this book was the dreamy nature of the narrative. Barnaby is in control of the story from the first page, moving freely through Portia's memories and leading the reader into her most tender, vulnerable thoughts. The chapters pick up a level of urgency around Portia's plight as an orphan, which unifies the prose. We see not just that Portia misses her father, but that her father becomes a representation of a golden childhood she never lived. To honor his memory and save her own soul, Portia must look for him, fleeing the orphanage and the mysterious patriarch Mister. Finding her father is an end in itself even as she realizes her father could be nothing more than a childhood dream.

The question becomes, should Portia find her father? Is there some reason, some balance in the universe demanding all girls should be able to find their missing parents? Not so, according to this novel. Rather, Portia finds meaning and identity in the unusual combination of circus performers in the Wonder Show. These people are flesh and blood, while her father is only a memory. At the climax of the novel, Portia chooses the physical reality of her new friends over the unending quest to find her mythical progenitor. Portia's journey is very much about living in the present, enjoying the life that is, even if it falls short of expectations.

Given this high level of poignant emotion and smooth storytelling, there was little to quibble with in the book. I would say two places stuck out to me as artistic choices which could have gone in different directions. First, when Portia is introduced to the circus, a multitude of characters, called "freaks", come into the novel. Barnaby's device to handle these new characters is to use short monologues from each of the characters' perspectives. Overall, the technique worked enough to keep the novel coherent. However, I had to wonder at one point if Barnaby was unintentionally treating each of these characters--who play a sideshow in real life--as a similar side show in the novel. That is, it seems the author's interest in circuses and circus performers may have exceeded her interest in her protagonist during the middle part of the novel. Of course, this subtle difference is hard to detect, and I am not sure if I would want to change the way she did this in the book. It is skillfully done, although it does slow down the narrative.

Second, the ending was emotionally satisfying in the sense that Portia's friends rescued her from the clutches of Mister, but it was also mystifying in how it tried to resolve a conflict which by that point had built to epic proportions. The nearly omniscient Mister managed to find Portia after her flight from the orphanage, but yet he gives in to a host of circus performers who happen to walk into his front door. It seems that the symbolic victory of Portia over Mister revolves around her striking him with a knife. This action represents, I suppose, the symbolic breaking of the link between Portia and her demonic task master. The use of violence as an end to the novel did not strike me as something necessarily positive: it is not clear why Mister should give in to violence, or if the book is endorsing violence as a means to victory. It is a healthy portion of poetic justice, but I was not entirely sure why Barnaby wanted Mister to be physically punished for his sins. Rather, it seems that the victory needed to come from within Portia, of her choosing to side with those who love her and against those who would control her. 

These thoughts are just ruminations. The book itself is a beautifully constructed tale of a character who lives in the heartbreak of the Great Depression. At the same time, it is a novel about letting go of loved ones who will not return. I would highly recommend it as a summer read to fill up quiet evenings.