I had no idea what to expect when I picked up this novel; I had the luxury of reading the book before seeing
the film, which is a rarity for me these days. I've read very mixed reviews over on Goodreads so I was dubious, but once I'd started I couldn't put it down! The unique setting and the era immediately appealed to me; it was a lot darker than I was expecting but that just made it all the more engrossing.
The story follows Jacob Jankowski, a victim of circumstance who finds himself on a circus train.As a trained vet, he is immediately put to work in the menagerie, populated by a number of exotic creatures ranging from the cute to the terrifying. From the moment that Jacob sees Marlena the star performer he is in love with her, which is unfortunate considering she is married to the enigmatic and seemingly bipolar August, the head animal trainer. You know from the prologue that the circus ends in disaster, and this
gives the novel an ominous air as the tension builds and tempers start
to flare, just like a pot coming to the boil. The clever twist at the
end I didn't see coming, and it just goes to show that humans and
animals really aren't that different after all.
At first I wasn't comfortable with the whole 'old Jacob looking back on his life' set up; narratives framed in this way tend to make me feel morbid and ruin the story somewhat. As the novel progresses however it soon becomes clear that there is more to this than a frail old man recounting his life story, and the ending for him was perfect! My favourite character was obviously Rosie the elephant, although Bobo
the chimp comes a very close second, to the point where I want a chimp to
cuddle like Jacob while I'm wandering around doing chores! From Sarah's
descriptions we come to love the animals as Jacob loved them, and this
made August's cruelty towards them -although more inferred than directly
described- difficult to read about.
Populated with a distinctive array of characters and descriptions so evocative that you feel as if you are there, Water for Elephants is a novel that I would recommend without hesitation. It's been a while since I have read a novel that is so unique and thought provoking; it's been almost a week since I finished it and I still have a 'book hangover.'
5/5 stars: As intoxicating as moonshine; not an easy read but a gripping tale of humans and animals living side by side on a circus train heading for tragedy.
(As I say, I've yet to see the film, but from what I know in terms of
casting I can imagine that Christoph Waltz will be perfectly terrifying
as August. Watch this space for the film review!)