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Book Review: The Circus Train by Amita Parikh

Book Review: The Circus Train by Amita Parikh

Spanning decades and continents, and drawing inspiration from real life history, Amita Parikh’s The Circus Train weaves together a captivating tale of magic, love, fortitude and family. This debut begins as an alluring Night Circus-esque novel about a daughter and her famed illusionist father aboard a travelling circus train. But as the dark cloud of war casts its shadow over Europe, the book soon evolves into something much more than the enchanting title and cover suggest.

It’s 1938 and Europe is on the precipice of war. Lena Papadopoulos is sheltered from the impending conflict. Living aboard the World of Wonders, a travelling circus that traverses the continent in a luxury steam engine, she exists in the safety of her doting illusionist father Theo’s love and protection. But Lena isn’t a stranger to pain and struggle. Despite the limitations of her wheelchair, which leaves her isolated from the circus performers, she yearns for the real-world magic of science and medicine. Lena’s curiosity and intelligence is her gift, if only she can find a way to pursue her studies in a world that doesn’t appreciate the brilliant minds of women.

When a young and charismatic French orphan called Alexandre finds his way onto the train, Lena’s life changes. Suddenly she doesn’t feel so alone. Alexandre gives Lena the confidence to fight for the future she wants, rather than the future everyone expects of her. Yet the arrival of World War II changes everything once more. Torn apart, Lena, Alexandre and Theo are forced to endure the horrors of a brutal conflict that will leave scars on them all. But if anyone can find their way back to each other, it’s these three brave, courageous souls.

If you think about it, life is like one long maze. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes we get stuck. But if you persist, if you can find it within you to endure the hardships, you will reach your goal.”

The Circus Train is that wonderful kind of novel that straddles the lines of history and fantasy with ease. On the one hand, this is a glittering tale filled with tricks, illusions and Cirque Du Soleil-esque performances. On the other, it’s a story rooted in modern history, with the traumatising events of war acting as the backdrop to the characters’ feats and failures. Parikh’s extensive research into disability, circuses, magic, German concentration camps and propaganda allows the novel to feel wholly authentic. Like its name, the circus train might be a veritable world of wonders, but the actual world the story exists in never once feels like a fiction.

Magic has always played with impossibilities and at its heart, this is a novel about overcoming the impossible. Whether it’s learning to walk when you’ve been told you can’t. Whether it’s making a success of your life when you’ve been made to believe that you amount to nothing. Whether it’s surviving something as terrible as war and coming out the other side without losing hope. The characters in this novel never lose faith in themselves or each other. It’s a genuine joy to see how Lena perseveres, even when the odds seem stacked against her. Of course there are many disabilities in life that aren’t so easily overcome but it’s Lena’s spirit – coupled with Alexandre’s unshakable belief in her and Theo’s enduring fatherly love – that makes anything feel possible.

Both heartening and heartbreaking in equal measure, The Circus Train is a beautifully written and evocative novel that blends history with the rush of young love and the dazzling spectacle of illusion. It’s a completely transportive novel with a wonderfully hopeful end that makes the whole journey worthwhile.


The Circus Train is published by Sphere on 12 January 2023

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