If you ever wanted to run away with the circus, if you have ever been passionately in love with the wrong person, if you are scared by the idea of a lonely old age in a nursing home, if you know some animals are cleverer and nicer than most people, if you love larger-than-life characters, lost worlds, high adventure and fairytale endings, then this book is for you.
Set in the USA in 1931, a period defined by Prohibition and the Depression, Water for Elephants follows Jacob Jankowski as he drops out of veterinary school and accidentally joins Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show On Earth, travelling by train across the country.
Circuses are failing just like other businesses and life on the road is tough. Uncle Al, the ringmaster who bought the Benzinis’ circus and their name, is a good showman, an unscrupulous businessman and a brutal boss. Roustabouts are ‘redlighted’ – thrown off the moving train – when they make trouble, and sick horses are fed to the lions when cash runs short. But Jacob and his unlikely collection of friends Camel, Kinko, Marlena, Rosie and Bobo (not all human but all worth knowing) are at the heart of the story, and it is a story with a big, warm heart.
Allen & Unwin, $29.95
Afterword: the novel became a reasonably good movie in 2011 – read about it on Rotten Tomatoes.
Review first published Dec 2006,
posted here 2020.