Jacob’s life seems laid out before him – he will shortly complete his veterinary studies and join his father in his veterinary practise.
Just prior to his final exam, however, life takes a cruel turn and both parents are killed in a car accident. To compound matters, it turns out that his kind-hearted father was not as financially sound as thought, and appears to have wavered fees for clients battling in the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He has also likely used all his savings to put his son through university.
Suddenly homeless and without financial security, Jacob runs away – inadvertently, to the circus. In a state of extreme anguish, he hitches a ride on a train that turns out to be a travelling circus. He soon realises this is one train journey he would rather not have taken.
He enters a world that while sequined, glamorous and filled with pageantry on the outside, is dark, sordid and unspeakably cruel behind the façade of the Big Top.
It is a world where only the fittest survive and Jacob saves his skin by acquiring the position of circus vet. The down side is that he wins the attention of the schizophrenic ringmaster, August who is married to the beautiful, fragile horsewoman, Marlena.
Jacob’s progressive attraction to Marlena puts him at risk of a deadly retribution from both Uncle Al, the circus owner and the volatile, unstable August.
Poignantly woven into the story is Jacob’s relationship with the circus animals – notably the newly acquired elephant, Rosie, who suffers endless cruelty at the hands of an increasingly psychotic August.
Love ultimately triumphs and there is also a delicious, final retribution for August when Rosie reminds us that elephants truly never forget.
The story is splendidly told and gives a well researched insight into circuses of the Great Depression. I also love the way the author repeatedly swaps to the present day where Jacob is now an elderly man.
The reader is taken on a rich, captivating journey throughout and there is a delightful twist to the story even right at the very end.
A wonderful read – I just hope the movie manages to do it justice.
Water for elephants
By Sara Gruen
Published by Algonquin Books