Book Review: ‘The Circus Train’ by Amita Parikh

Book Title: The Circus Train
Author: Amita Parikh
Publisher: Sphere
Number of Pages: 416
ISBN: 978-1408729762
Date Published: Jan. 12. 2023
Price: INR 292

The Circus Train by Amita Parikh Book Cover

Book Review

In her remarkable debut novel, “The Circus Train,” Amita Parikh skillfully delves into the tumultuous era spanning from 1938 to 1952, capturing the harrowing backdrop of the Second World War. Set against the captivating backdrop of the Sterling and Beddington World of Wonders, a traveling circus, Parikh takes readers on a transcontinental journey through Western and Eastern Europe before reaching the Far East.

Within this grand tapestry, the novel explores a multitude of themes, including physical disability, antisemitism, and intricate interpersonal relationships. Through a narrative that exudes both romanticism and historical resonance, Parikh deftly strikes a delicate balance between the monumental historical context and the personal struggles of the main characters.

At its core, “The Circus Train” grapples with the question of identity and one’s place in a rapidly changing world. We meet Helena, known as Lena Papadopoulos, the daughter of the renowned illusionist Theo Papadopoulos. Afflicted by polio since infancy, Lena navigates life in a wheelchair until the age of thirteen. Accompanying her father on the circus train after her mother’s untimely death, Lena immerses herself in a world of knowledge amidst a community of agile performers.

Lena’s life takes an unexpected turn when she discovers a young Jewish boy, Alexandre, collapsed and near exhaustion in the train’s pantry car. Moved by compassion, Lena befriends Alexandre, leading her father to convince the circus owner, Horace Beddington, to allow Alexandre to join the circus under an assumed identity. This fateful decision sets in motion a chain of events that alters the destinies of all three individuals.

Supported by Dr. Wilson, the circus company’s resident doctor, and inspired by Alexandre, Lena begins her journey toward physical recovery. Guided by her governess, Clara, she aspires to attend boarding school. However, as the political situation in Europe deteriorates, Theo and Alexandre fall into the clutches of the SS, leading to their internment in Theresienstadt, a grim reality that sheds light on the horrors endured by Jewish prisoners. Amidst the tumult, Theo and Alexandre manage to escape and embark on a daring quest to reunite with Lena, who had been led to believe they perished. Their enthralling adventure unfolds against the backdrop of a war-torn continent, presenting a beautifully crafted narrative.

Throughout the story, all three protagonists strive to find their place in society, grappling with issues of race, family, and social acceptance. Lena’s indomitable spirit and unwavering determination propel her beyond her physical limitations, although she still encounters obstacles due to her gender while pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor. Alexandre, with his complex racial identity and haunting past, emerges as an embodiment of resilience and survival. Meanwhile, Theo carries the burden of a secret about Lena’s birth, wrestling with guilt until their long-awaited reunion unveils the truth after eight years of separation.

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Parikh masterfully captures the profound impact of the war, not only through the trials faced by Theo and Alexandre but also through the crumbling fortune of the World of Wonders circus. The seeming stability and shelter that Horace envisioned within the confines of the Circus Train reveal themselves as illusions grander than any magic trick Theo could conjure on stage.

Above all, “The Circus Train” is a tale of love and relationships—a testament to the enduring power of human connection in the face of overwhelming loss and injustice inflicted by the war. Parikh handles the theme of disability with care and sensitivity, shedding light on society’s attitudes toward individuals with disabilities. Her prose flows effortlessly, painting a vivid and engaging portrait that captivates readers from start to finish.

While the novel shines brightly, there are a few minor discrepancies, such as conflicting accounts of how Lena contracted polio from Dr. Wilson and Theo, as well as a handful of typographical errors. Additionally, the inclusion of a reference to a “rickshaw” with the ignition in India serves as a charming nod to the author’s origins but stands out as somewhat anomalous. Nevertheless, “The Circus Train” marks an enchanting debut that leaves readers eagerly anticipating future works from Amita Parikh.

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