1 July 2013

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants is an emotional and harrowing story about a train circus during the Depression. Jacob Jankowski is 23 years old and almost finished with his veterinary degree when both his parents die in a car crash. Soon he finds himself homeless, with no money and no degree, so he jumps a train and lands himself in the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

The very stark reality of circus life in the Depression era is highlighted in this book. Everything is examined, from the hierarchy between bosses, performers and working men to the poor souls who were tossed out of a moving train and the severe treatment of the circus animals in some cases. There is a huge emphasis of the discrimination of Black people, Polish people, Jews and Dwarfs. This proves to be a very educational read, along the lines of many great classic works. Life in general is also commented on; Jacob gets drunk for the first time, he falls in love, he has sex, he makes friends and enemies. There are many relationships in the book, some as simple as the love between a man and his dog, and some as complex as an abusive marriage to a paranoid schizophrenic. Even if you have not experienced some of these things yourself, the experiences within the book still resonate with the reader.

The book is narrated in first person from the viewpoint of the 90 (or 93)-year-old Jacob. He is in a nursing home and is looking forward to going to see the circus. As he does, he remembers his life 70 years ago, and all the events that transpired before the stampede of 1931, an event described in the prologue.

It is almost impossible not to be touched by this book. The love story that is ingrained at the heart of it is slow, tentative, taking its time just like in reality. The situation is extremely complex, and if you were placed in Jacobs position, you would not have a clue what to do either. The conclusion is disturbing but in a way perfectly justified and even realistic (there are rumours of this happening before).What a climax, too. Tensions rise throughout the novel, so much so that you are almost screaming at Jacob to man up, but when a few things happen in quick succession, you just know the stampede is coming.

This book is a must-read for anyone who loves romance and history. The setting of the circus adds an effective dose of fantasy into the mix, so you are always struck when there is a reminder that the world is a harsh place in those times. On that note, it is a hard-hitting read and can be sexually graphic, so it is firmly based in the adult reader category.

A truly absorbing read; 10 out of 10. I can't wait to watch the film and compare.

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The film, starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon is out now on DVD.