Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Reviews #4

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen.
This book was suggested as a possible bookgroup read ages and ages ago and no-one felt inspired to read it, I guess the summary of it just didn't appeal enough to us, or something was more interesting. I decided to read it because they've just finished filming it and if I'm likely to eventually see the film (which is highly probable seeing as one of the stars is a really cute actor) I'd rather have read the book first - which do you prefer? To have seen the film before reading the book or vice versa? I confess that it can be off putting to watch a film and find they've missed great chunks of the book out or, heaven forbid, changed the ending, but I'm far more likely to read the book before a film than afterwards...

This novel has 2 stories running, one is being told by the 93 year old Jacob and almost had me in tears many times as he despairs at the frailty of his body and his reduced circumstances as his humanity fails, he's stuck in a 'nursing' home and reminiscing about his life in the circus because a big top has appeared within sight of the front door of the facility. The portrayal of a crotchety old man who is aware of how little life he might have left and frustrated by the little enjoyment he is allowed to have by the staff is spot on.

The 2nd story is that of Jacob's reminiscing, back in his youth he ran away to the circus, by accident more than purpose, but at the age of 23 he found himself, an almost qualified vet, orphaned and penniless and on a train with a travelling circus for whom a vet was quite useful (seeing as they had lions, panthers, monkeys, giraffes, horses and eventually an elephant along as part of the show).

The book is set in America during the 1930's, complete with the Depression and Prohibition, so there is the struggle for money and the black market booze going on in the background of the story.
There are some great 3 dimensional characters here, from the human - the unpleasant 'Uncle Al' who owns the circus, the evil but charismatic August, the head animal trainer, Camel the alcoholic, Walter the clown and the gorgeous Marlene, to the animal - Rosie the lemonade stealing, Polish understanding (I'd say 'speaking' but she doesn't speak, she just understands the commands) cabbage eating elephant, Bobo the chimpanzee and Queenie the terrier.

A great story, into which a huge amount of research has been poured which leaves you with a thorough understanding of life on the railroad circus* in the 1930's and no desire to have actually participated in that lifestyle whatsoever. I loved the main character of Jacob and found the ending perfect.

I think I'd read another Sara Gruen novel after enjoying this one.

* the circus travelled from city to city by train, often staying in one spot for 1 day before packing everything up and moving on through the night, ready to set up and perform in another city the following day.

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