Book review

Zarconi's Magic Flying Fish by Kirsty Murray (1999)

It's harder work than you might think -- keeping a circus on the road. It's good if you can walk on a tightrope, do a few pratfalls and general tumbling, busk in front of the audience with size thirteen shoes and a big red nose ... But if you didn't know your grandparents had a circus, and you suddenly have to stay with them, in their caravan, on the road, while your mum is in hospital, you might find that the only job you're really qualified for is mucking out the elephant's truck!

Dear Mum,
I hope you're feeling better. How much longer til you can come and get me? I hope you're better really soon. Everyone here is weird except Effie is okay and there is an elephant too. Doc eats fire and he made me clean up Kali's turds. I miss you. I miss Melbourne. I even miss school. I hope you get better really quick so I can come home really soon. Next week would be good.
Love Gus

Actually, Gus is having a horrible time. It's hard to face up to his mother's cancer. He really just wants everything to go on as it was before. Just him and his mother living in a proper house. School and his friend Pete Spanner. But if that is not to be, then really, he'd quite like a granny like Pete's: white hair, plump and cuddly-looking.

As it turns out, Gus's grandparents are a rather formidable pair. The problem isn't really how much they expect him to put into Zarconi's Circus - he's quite keen to have a go on the trapeze - it's more a problem of how much they won't tell him about his own family background.

For instance, everyone seems to have known his father, but won't tell Gus anything about him. Then there is the other Gus. Who exactly was he, if he wasn't his father? Why did his mother leave the circus and never tell him about it? And why won't his grandparents call him by his proper name?

There's a lot to worry about, but as Gus begins to settle into the life of the circus he becomes pre-occupied with other things. He really wants to fly on the trapeze like the girl Effie, but his grandparents seem determined to keep him on the ground. He practises his tumbling routines and is whisked in front of the crowd as Zippo Zarconi 'the clumsiest little clown in Australia'!

'There's sawdust in your veins, boy, mark my words. Blood will out - every time!'

But the circus is not drawing big enough crowds and the takings are down. On top of that, they have a run of bad luck which makes Gus wonder if he really is a Jonah for Zarconi's - first the snake girl's snake dies, then Kali the elephant dies, then the big top is damaged in a twister out in the desert. Gus's grandfather is ready to pay everyone off and give up, but still all Zarconi's Incredible Travelling Circus needs is one brand new exciting act ...

Gus's mother recovers and is ready to take him home again, but now Gus finds his new life has taken him over completely:

The idea of returning to his old life in Melbourne made him feel muddled and unsure of himself. He'd shed the skin of that life, like a grub breaking out of its cocoon, and he couldn't imagine how he could squash his beautiful new wings back into the chrysalis.

What's to be done? Can Gus help breathe new life into Zarconi's?

I really enjoyed this book. I loved meeting all the different characters that the circus presented, and having a little look round a real working circus.

What can I read next?

Specially interested in circuses? David Almond has written a beautiful book partly set in a circus. Like all his work, it is practically poetry:

KM Peyton has written a thrilling story set around horse racing, which has a really exciting atmosphere:

And Susan Gates has written this extraordinary adventure which starts off in a travelling theatre:

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