This poignant coming-of-age fantasy, which made me weep a little, deserves more praise than it’s received. Here’s why…
City of Circles was published about a year ago. But it didn’t garner nearly enough buzz, IMO. The book’s author, Jess Richards, also wrote Snake Ropes, which was shortlisted for the COSTA award in 2012. The Guardian described Snake Ropes as “visceral, evocative” and “haunted by the influence of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood”. Such comparisons say something.
Many readers would enjoy the themes, messages and motifs in City of Circles. There’s alchemical and astrological imagery; and crows, horses, magpies and tarot cards feature (as do signs, omens and superstitions). Part of the story is set within a circus community, bringing other popular titles to mind (think The Night Circus and The Queen of the Night). It’s for readers who appreciate the fantastical, the magical and mysterious, with a lovely love story in the mix.
Given how much I enjoyed this read, I was surprised that it seemed to have fallen under the radar. But who knows … perhaps I missed some convos about it, or maybe it’s one of those slow-burners that’ll go on to be a sleeper hit some day.
WHAT HOOKED ME IN
I’ve grown to understand the appeal of ‘ugly sexy’ men, so I was drawn to the hunchback character (the romantic lead) mentioned in the book’s blurb:
Danu, in mourning for her parents after a disease ravages the circus she calls home, begins a high-wire act with Morrie, a charismatic hunchback who wants to marry her. When the circus returns to Danu’s birthplace, the magical city of Matryoshka, she discovers the name of a stranger who may hold the answer to her past and reveal the secret of the locket her mother entrusted to her as she died. When the circus leaves Danu stays behind.
Will she and Morrie ever be reunited, or will something unexpected be waiting for her in the mysterious heart of the city of circles?
On opening the book for a squizz, I felt the impact of the book’s first line: “Dying faces are the colour of soiled linen”. Flipping through, the chapter titles gave an indication of the book’s themes. They read like blessings, or lines from a folk rhyme, and point to a transformational ‘Hero’s Journey’ structure, too:
One for Sorrow
Two for Learning
Three for Refusal
Four for Yearning
Five for an Element
Six for Sold
Seven for Secrets, Never to be Told
Eight for Heaven
Nine for Wealth
Ten for Your Own True Self
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Danu loses her parents to illness, which ends their “safe group of three”, living together in their circus caravan. She’s frozen in grief, as if “behind glass”, and hunts for her parents in her dreams.
Danu needs a new place to call home. At first, she thinks she should leave circus life and join “the flatties” (as the circus folk call outsiders).
She knows some family secret could help her find solace in her grief and believes a locket of her mother’s holds the key − if only she had the courage to open it. She also remembers the name ‘Rosa’ being spoken by her folks in hushed tones. Who was (or is) she?
The answer must surely lie in the place she was born, where the circus will soon be headed: The City of Circles.
WHAT I LOVED ABOUT THE BOOK
The author’s writing style: Here’s an example:
“A warm breeze blows across her face. She exhales and rises from the wall. Going against the flow of pedestrians, she walks back towards Wringers Street. As she passes an alleyway, a tin can rattles along cobblestones. It’s the kind of sound stars might make if they’d fallen loose, and dropped to roll along an ordinary street.” (p. 250)
They gypsy theme: City of Circles shows you the best and worst of circus life, from the claustrophobia of living in such close quarters (“There’s never enough air in a caravan,” Danu says) to the warmth of singing songs around the fire at night.
I appreciated some of the wise words hidden in the folksy ditties. Take this chorus from a song Danu writes for an acrobatic sequence she and Morrie will perform:
“When threat of annihilation fills your lover with dread
If you’re not the same size then you’re ill-advised to wed
the bed’s a mile down when your wings get frantic
and rushed never lie with a lover who’s small enough to be
crushed” (p. 91)
Says something true about finding a partner with an equal fighting’ weight’, right?
The unlikely love interest: There’s great vulnerability in the intimacy between Morrie and Danu, and satisfying tension in her push-pull reaction to his desire for her.
Their moments of learning to tightrope walk as a duo are like an extended (and poetic) trust exercise, which works well as a device for helping build the tension and chemistry.
The City of Circles itself: Danu takes the bold step of starting over (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, given that the title of the book suggests she’ll journey to the city she was born in!).
The author has created quite an original world here: The City of Circles is built on a volcano, named after a doll, and made up of three circles (each of which is a different sub-city/neighbourhood). The circles move around each other, “like a vast mechanical toy”. In the outer circle, the main trade is in spices. This made from some evocative scenes, like this one:
“In the glow of streetlamps, coloured dust swirls in red, orange, ochre, yellow, black, white … Mist descends through the night sky, magnified around the lights … Flavours and smells compete as colours dance. Allspice, cardamom, chilli … cinnamon, curry, pepper … cinnamon again, ginger … she’s drunk with it.” (p. 95)
Sounds like a place I’d want to spend a few fun nights in!
“The main street must be the hub of the outer circle. It looks to be a circle inhabited by rogues, entertainers and pleasure-seekers. Café tables are crowded with enthused and argumentative conversations. Thieves snatch and scarper, the drunken swagger, lovers kiss, and vagabonds plot in huddles on corners.” (p. 94)
It’s exploration of loneliness and isolation: This is where it got me in the feels. The book introduced me to the concept of The Anchoress. I’d never known of the term:
According to Medieval Life and Times, during the Middle Ages…
“An Anchoress was a deeply religious woman who chose to live a solitary life in confined quarters called an anchorage or and anchorhold, which usually consisted of a single small cell. The anchorage or anchorholds were similar to hermits but rather than living alone in forests or caves the anchoress lived within populated communities. The anchorhold was often attached to the wall of a church.”
Danu remembers meeting an anchoress once, when she was nine. The woman had lived alone in a cave for 20 years. Danu asks if she gets lonely, to which the anchoress replies:
“As long as I’m still curious, I don’t mind loneliness. I’ve deeply considered all the types of loneliness that there are, and invented some new words.” (p283)
The anchoress then shares her list of these 15 words with Danu. I particularly related to:
“Ignornly: The kind of loneliness which others comment on – as in, ‘I think he’s lonely’ and their expression shows sympathy, but also a little wariness, as if loneliness could be contagious.”
“Idealone: A hankering for an imagined scenario – where it’s the idea of the situation that causes the loneliness.”
“Upwrench: The rational side – loneliness needs to be felt and solitude is needed even if it’s not always comfortable. Letting loneliness come, but giving it a time limit: not wallowing.”
The story behind the story: It was clear that the author knows what it is to feel adrift, grieving, and lonely. An author’s end note tells of Jess Richards’ journey in writing the book, which involved the end of her marriage and her father’s death. These heavy, heartfelt experiences resonated throughout the book; I could sense emotional truth behind it.
Her marriage ended in the early days of writing, so she packed up her life and became transient, looking after people’s houses and pets. This is something I’ve been doing (I read this book during a housesitting gig).
Says the author: “At its core, City of Circles is about love and grief. It’s been a beautiful and truthful and difficult tale to write during my own strange journey. Perhaps all fiction is in some ways autobiographical, even while telling its own story.”
(There’s more to her story. But I’ll let you read about her Happy Ever After yourself.)
SO, HOW DOES IT END?
Like the best of endings, it’s bittersweet. Danu finds what she seeks, but not without a serious sacrifice. Which is pretty much how transformation works IRL, right?
While the character’s outer journey is in some ways the literal opposite of mine, I took it to be representative of Individuation, of finding the Self. It’s also about belonging; trusting and loving your Self; finding your centre of gravity, your foundation, on this earth.
This book is for all of us who seek a soul mate, love, care and nurturing – in other words, a place to call ‘home’.