A former tiger groom again explores the lives of those who run off and join the circus—in another violent, atmospheric, and suspenseful tale from Stevens (The Circus of the Earth and the Air, 1994). This time, though, Stevens has eschewed the surrealism that figured so prominently before to create a more cohesive, tightly drawn story. A night watchman finds a beautiful girl of indeterminate age huddled in a corner of an Ohio mall, covered in blood and unable to speak. A rip in her shirt reveals that her skin has been inscribed with an intricate network of fish-scale tattoos; only her hands, feet, and face remain unmarked. Lucy Thurman, former Crown Circus fat lady, reads about this discovery and feels an intense connection to the girl. After some wrangling with the local orphanage, she adopts the newly named Emma, who thrives under Lucy's tutelage. But the scars from Emma's traumatic past manifest themselves in a bizarre manner: she attempts to kill herself in her sleep. Saddened and horrified, Lucy sets out to unravel her daughter's history. She seeks advice on the tattoos' significance from Master Howard, the sadistic Crown Circus owner, and leaves Emma with a team of kindly doctors so she can follow his leads down to a deserted stretch of West Virginia.
Only a slightly preposterous ending mars Stevens’s otherwise intelligent, poignant, and vividly imagined page-turner.