Thursday, December 7, 2023

Sisters of the Circus by Laila Manack

What drew me to Sisters of the Circus by Laila Manack is that I'm a huge fan of stories about performers that are set in liminal spaces such as theatres and circuses. This story introduces as to twins Kahina and Noor, who together perform a trapeze act in a circus. This life is all they know, although they are aware that they were sold to the circus owner, Garret, when they were very young – so in essence, they are slaves.

Although the setting is nominally European, and it's suggested that the story takes place during the interwar period, the focus is very much on the microcosm of the circus and the small dramas that play out beyond the eyes and ears of the audience. Theirs is a tight-knit, often toxic community, and Noor and Kahina endure much cruelty. 

It's a kind of love-hate situation, because undeniably performance offers one heck of a kick to the sisters, and this is the only life that these two young women know. Although they can conceive of a life beyond that which is familiar, it is understandably difficult for them to break from the routine – until events conspire that see Kahina training a mysterious young man to be part of her act. Central to the plot is almost a coming of age, as the sisters struggle with notions of identity and a claiming of agency out of an oppressive space.

All this plays out against the somewhat exotic background (for those of us not in the business, of course) of circus life and the often harsh realities the performers face when they're not in the ring. Kahina and Noor soon discover that there is a bigger, more dangerous game at play, and while they navigate and negotiate the terms of their potential freedom, they face many risks while bigger players revel in their machinations. 

This was, largely, an enjoyable read. I did feel that the editing for this book could have been a bit sharper – I picked up quite a few obvious typos and grammatical errors. And not just copy editing, but I felt that the story itself, while it has a strong start, becomes a little muddled towards the end, as if Manack wasn't quite sure where to end it and the developmental editor either didn't leave strong hints or these edits were rushed and not implemented. It could be a combination of all these, which I've seen played out with otherwise awesome books over the years. Some pretty exciting stuff happens plot wise, but I often feel as if Noor and Kahina are carried along by events rather than having a firmer hand in steering them. I also would have liked to have seen more attention paid to differentiating their voices, as I often struggled to tell the two apart.

All things considered, this is still a great little story, left open ended enough for continuation. Manack's voice is fresh, and she weaves a compelling tale in the kind of setting that should appeal to those of us still sore about the fact that a series like Carnivale was canned after only two seasons.