Chin’s (You Might Forget the Sky Was Ever Blue, 2019) set of linked short stories look at the dark side of circus life.
In the opening story, “Forever,” Verne meets and quickly falls for Penelope, who inherits her father’s circus and names Verne its ringmaster. She also makes him promise that he’ll want her forever, and he soon learns how difficult forever can be. Subsequent stories follow different performers of the same traveling circus or others on the verge of joining it. These tales also follow doomed relationships; in “Attachments,” for example, conjoined twins Marco and Lupus Iannatelli leave Marianne—the first woman to accept them both—to become part of the circus. In “Clown Faces,” Shanaran and Arabullonia are roommates at Spiddledy Clown College in Shermantown, New York; Shanaran just wants to make others happy, but an accident during a recital may transform Arabullonia into a somber clown. Several characters recur, such as the “Tall Man,” who appears first in a supporting role and later in his own tale. The most common players, however, are ringmaster Verne; his right-hand man, Claude; and Lucille, a lioness without a lion tamer. In a series of brief vignettes, the ringmaster attempts various training methods from a pamphlet titled “Approaches to Taming Your Lion.” These result in both dangerous and sweet situations; in one story, the ringmaster and beast share a tender moment. The book comes full circle with “White Space,” which returns to the ringmaster’s unusual and undeniably turbulent romance with Penelope.
Chin’s grim but engrossing stories generally take unexpected turns. In the case of “Bearded,” for instance, Ellie, the circus’s new bearded lady, develops an act with Susan, another, hairier woman who’s known as “Pepper the Dog.” Their performance unsurprisingly hits some snags, but the story’s biggest surprise occurs after a sudden assault. Many of the tales are steeped in rich irony; in “Juggler,” for example, a talented woman named Jari finds juggling relationships to be much harder than juggling mere objects, and in “The Fat Lady Sings,” a character doesn’t want a titillating experience to end. Overall, the author writes in an unadorned but crisp style that effectively shows its characters, whom some audience members call “freaks,” to be everyday people with familiar problems. For example, in one story, a contortionist touchingly deals with anguish over an ailing loved one; and in “The Tallest Man in the World,” the titular character, Travis, has a father who seems disappointed that he isn’t the athlete that he’d wanted. Although there are instances of violence, Chin more often favors more affecting tales, such as “Fallen,” in which a trapeze artist named Ulana has an apparently fatal fall but is perfectly fine the next morning. Although each story in the collection focuses on different characters, they’re mostly presented chronologically. Accordingly, readers will want to read them in order—particularly as one character’s startling death will have a much greater impact if one knows the backstory.
A lively gathering of compelling, down-to-earth tales of the big top.