There’s an old trick that writers who participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) know, and that’s when in doubt, add a circus. It works. Circuses are fun. They have glitz and glamour, and underdogs, and sometimes literal dogs and other animals. Everyone loves a circus story. In recent years, the darker side to circuses – such as their exploitation of people with body differences, have been under the spotlight more. Australian author Kerri Turner explores this phenomena in her latest novel, The Magpie’s Sister.
The book begins in New South Wales in 1911, and sees the circus move from Sydney to Adelaide in search of audiences. Maggie Bright suffers from a medical condition which left large tumours down one side of her face and neck. Given by her loveable scoundrel of a father to a travelling circus as a child, she has grown up as The Lagoon Creature, performing nightly in the Braun Brothers Royal Circus. Still somewhat of an outsider from the other performers – she can’t perform death defying stunts or control animals, and she doesn’t have the strength to be part of the road crew – Maggie escapes into a world of books such as Ethel Turner‘s Seven Little Australians.
Also part of the troupe is Charlotte Voigt, a beautiful funambulist (or tightrope walker) who leads a charmed life. When the circus loses its prized elephants, and are forced out onto the road in search of new punters, Charlotte goes looking for someone to spend one last night on the town with her. She and Maggie spend a night drinking, skating, and getting tattoos. For the first time, Maggie feels something like friendship, and sisterhood. But the next morning, Charlotte seems to have forgotten Maggie was even there, and so when an opportunity occurs for Maggie to take Charlotte’s place, and starts up a letter writing relationship with one of the tightrope walker’s admirers, she takes it.
The two grow closer as the circus travels through South Australia. Turner gently teases out a real sense of sisterhood between the two young women, one of whom is steady and capable but overlooked because of her facial differences and the other who is hiding a dark past behind sparkles and showmanship. They make a good team, and this comes in handy when Charlotte loses her nerve and must adapt her act. Maggie, given a chance to be adored rather than feared for once, realises that her life hadn’t always been leading in the direction of a freak show. When she meets a child exploited just like her, feelings of maternal longing are awakened in her.
This beautiful novel is set against a rich backdrop of mostly small town Australia. You can smell the sawdust in the stables at the pubs and hotels Charlotte and Maggie visit, and feel the cold river water as the circus makes a crossing of the Murray. Turner includes mention of the local First Nations people through side characters, but doesn’t presume to speak for them or give her characters views anachronous to their time. Through the inclusion of a Japanese acrobat, she also finds a way to critique the racism of the White Australia Policy, which was still in play in 1911.
Turner, whose previous novels have also followed other characters involved in the performing arts has a clear understanding of the physicality of her character’s actions, and imbues descriptions of tightrope walking with a sense of danger but also great skill. To read the scenes where the circus performs its different acts is to feel like a part of the audience. I couldn’t help but wonder how one learns to do a backflip on a tightrope without a safety net.
If you love Australian historical fiction or are fascinated by circuses, then The Magpie’s Sister is for you.