Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
24 October, 2013
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen was Polly’s September choice for my book group. Although it’s a title I’ve heard of, mainly because of the film version featuring Sparkles, I’m not too keen on books about animals. I’ve said this before and I’ve been pleasantly surprised and no more so than this book. It’s spectacular in every sense, from it’s showy circus to the desperation of the Depression era to the runaways and working people who have managed to hitch a ride on the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. I’ve only ever been to the circus once and I loved it. But I’ve watched enough documentaries about life behind the glitz to know the heartbreak and hardship camouflaged by the sequins and smart top hats.
In Water for Elephants we meet Jacob Jankowski, a vet student at Cornell whose life turns upside down when he loses his parents and home in one tragic moment. Too shocked by grief to sit his final exams, he runs away and stumbles onto a train carrying the Benzini Brothers circus. Luckily for him, his training with animals gets him a job looking after the menagerie. But it’s not just the animals that have caught his eye; but Marlena, the beautiful performer chained to to her mercurial husband, August, who trains the animals. As Jacob tries to fit in to his new life, he learns the hard way that you cannot be the master of your own fate unscathed. As desires burn and jealousy is unleashed, Jacob must find a way to protect the woman he loves and the friends he has come to cherish in what is a dangerous and often unfair livelihood. Anger, cruelty and railroading are all part and parcel of a traveling circus’ life but sometimes it can end in real tragedy.
Sara Gruen does a superb job in taking us into the world of the traveling circus in Depression era America. Her prose is fast, visual and stunning that you can almost here the cymbals, roars and cheering crowds. But underlying all the spectacle is the desperate nature of the job which can only be kept if you are healthy. Once you are of no use, that’s it, you’re gone. Uncle Al, the circus owner, and August, the animal trainer, are two characters who scared the shit out of me. Although charming and larger than life, they turn ugly really quickly when they don’t get what they want. I’m not sure which is the crueler. But what Gruen is brilliant at doing is that she doesn’t just keep them as one dimensional villains. They often show compassion in unexpected moments which makes their ugly side even harder to stomach.
Jacob is a wonderful narrator, all dolt-like and unsure at the beginning, so naïve and yet his experience with the Benzini Brothers toughens him and makes him realise what he truly wants. And what he wants is Marlena. I have to admit I connected the least with Marlena who seemed kind of washed out compared to all the other characters but her main role as the catalyst which unravels Benzini’s is spot on. Both Walter, the dwarf, and Camel, the alcoholic odd job man, are incredibly sad and poignant characters who were adrift in life until they found their niche in the circus.
I loved Water for Elephants and it’s unlike any book I’ve read. The novel fizzles with life and although you can’t quite call it a literary masterpiece and the ending is a bit washy, here, the story is king and a fine one indeed.